Centralia, PA – A Burning Ghost Town

I don’t need much of an excuse to take the Brick to just about any destination. On a birthday phone call, my older brother John told me of a town called Centralia, PA that is now a ghost town because of a landfill fire that spread to the coal mine shafts. The result was an underground blaze that emitted poisonous gas and it still burns to this day. The fire began on May 27, 1962, so it just passed it’s 50th anniversary. I was intrigued, so I planned a Friday day trip to the eerie place.

This was my longest trip yet on the Brick so I took along some water and my wet weather gear just in case. I headed over the George Washington Bridge and onto Route 80. The weather was a little warm but the strong breeze kept me from overheating. The elevation changes and the endless trees put me in a good mood, along with a myriad of twists and turns. There was very little traffic to speak of, and it was nice having the open road to myself. I know a lot of motorcyclists that like to ride in groups. I have not done this much but I am not sure I would enjoy it. By traveling alone I can be totally selfish. I can stop whenever I like and change my path as I go. It’s a freedom that I enjoy. Just me, the road, and my thoughts.

I made good time and I stopped along the way in a town called Hazelton, which has a Penn State University Branch. I used the Yelp app on my iPhone to locate a breakfast place and came upon a restaurant named Sisters. It didn’t look that big from the outside, but the the interior was cavernous. There were wide aisles between tables, a high ceiling, and a huge kitchen. Living in Manhattan can be strange. Space is at such a premium I forget most other towns don’t have to cram everything tightly together. I was reminded of this when I went to the bathroom and it was almost as big as my studio apartment in Harlem.

I ordered a basic breakfast and wanted to try their boneless ribs as a side, but they had ran out of this local staple. I settled for hot Italian sausage along with my eggs and toast which was delicious as was the coffee. Sitting in the restaurant was a pleasant departure from the Big Apple. No long lines, nobody rushing you out, and local conversation with the waitress. As I ate I saw the local paper somebody left next to me on a stool. The cover story was about the Sandusky Trial. I flipped it over and kept eating. The walls were adorned with interesting paintings. One of a man replicated many times, another of the Three Stooges, and still another of the Rat Pack. They were not photographs and were certainly originals. I often forget that although NYC is the epicenter of so many things like art, music, theater, film, and fashion, there are other creative types that prefer to dwell outside the insanity and population of Manhattan. These paintings were a good reminder of that idea. Art is everywhere, not only in the condensed city of New York.

I headed back to the Brick which now had a slight mist on it from an abrupt rain. I have learned to grab a few paper towels or napkins whenever I leave a restaurant for the sole purpose of being greeted by a wet bike. A quick wipe down and I was on the road. I twisted my way through the backroads and came upon the deserted town. It was small. The 1400 residents that once lived here were evacuated in the 80s funded by a 42 million dollar Government relocation plan. According to sources, some did not leave. A total of 9 people still live in the poisoned town. I really wanted to see the cracked old State Road 61, but it was closed off and not accessible. I did get to drive around the other empty streets. Most of the houses have been leveled, leaving behind a strange maze of over grown roads peppered with graffiti. I drove around and came upon and the old Municipal Building that served as a fire house and police station. A dusty firetruck sat inside, no longer needed because of the lack of population.

I went further on, touring the back roads, I came upon a house with Christmas wreaths still hanging in the windows. I got a strange feeling knowing that a family had to uproot and leave to go to a new place. It reminded me of the time when I moved from New Jersey to Florida when I was 12. I remembered not being too distraught about it, but excited that I would be able to reinvent myself. Maybe I would be one of the cool kids in this new place I was going to be living. It felt like hope to me. I wondered if there was a similar boy in this burning town that thought of being evacuated as a better life than the one he had here.

I pressed on and encountered two occupied houses, both emblazoned with plenty of “no trespassing” signage. I am sure that the few folks left standing in this town are tired of the crowds coming every time a news source runs a new story about the place. They moved here to be in a quiet refuge amongst nature and instead got an underground fire and tourists. I stayed well clear of the houses to let the brave remaining residents have their privacy. I parked next to a St. Ignatius Cemetary and walked over to where a group of tourists were walking among the rubble. Why were they here? Was their curiosity peaked as mine was to see what remained here? It reminded me of 9/11. Shortly after that horrific day, tourists came to New York with some morbid desire to look upon where the towers collapsed. I remember giving one of these tourists directions. She asked “I’ve already seen the Empire State Building and Madame Tussauds, can you tell me how to get to Ground Zero?” My stomach turned thinking about how this unintentional burial ground had become a tourist stop, but I guided her in the right direction realizing that maybe she had lost a loved one or wanted to pay respects to the fallen.

Visting Centralia helped me understand that tourist’s curiosity now. Something inside of me wanted to see the damage – to see what these people suffered. Maybe it’s to help me realize how great my life really is, or maybe it’s just an oddity like a two-headed calf to look upon in disbelief. Whatever it was, visiting the burned grounds certainly changed me. I realized I have lived a charmed life up until this point. I have been in 4 motorcycle wrecks and 2 head-on car collisions. I have been hit on a bicycle by a car and ran over by a US Mail truck. I was about a mile from Ground Zero when the planes hit. I have a had a gun pulled on me and have been cold-cocked in a bar brawl. Yet not only am I alive – I have never even broken a bone. If anything, I am great at survival.

The drive home was equally beautiful as the ride out. I stopped in Ashland, PA for a quick beer before the 3 plus hours drive home. It was a divey little place as I like called The Drunken Monkey, and the beer was frosty and cheap. I saw a pinball machine in the corner like none other I have ever seen. It was a Rube Goldberg-esque bingo themed machine titled Magic-Dixieland that appears to be for gambling. Although I will almost always play pinball when I get the chance, I resisted playing the odd machine in the essence of time. I drained my beer and got back on the road.

I wound through the mountains and reflected on the ghost town. I doubt I’ll ever go back because there really isn’t much to see there. Just a shell of a small town that suffered the  bizarre event that brought about it’s demise. While I was on 80, I realized how close I was to Libby’s Lunch where I was just days before. I thought eating there would be a good way to shake some of the melancholy that Centralia had seared into me. I pulled off the highway and into the parking lot. I took a seat in a booth and blurted, “Two all the way and a Coors light draught!” I guess I’m a regular now…

To watch a news story about Centralia click here.

Click images for larger versions:


The beauty above the burning mine fire of Centralia, PA

Breakfast Stop Sisters in Hazelton Cool art at Sisters
Italian Breakfast Remnants of holidays Municipal Building
Lonely truck Front of Municipal No cops here
View from Centralia Scars of the past Windmills in the Distance
Debris Pit stop Unknown pinball


350 Miles Round trip to Centralia, PA

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4 Responses to Centralia, PA – A Burning Ghost Town

  1. Kathy says:

    I’ve often thought about visiting Centralia, too. You have a knack for writing about your trips. I’m glad to have found you. 🙂

  2. Joe Popp says:

    Thanks Kathy! I like your blog too: http://appalachiantours.blogspot.com/. I’ll be driving through the Appalachians in Fall

  3. John Popp says:

    Great story Joe. Seems that soon nature will finish taking over Centralia. It’s hard to believe that that was once a town of thousands.

    Of course you had to mention Libby’s. I guess I’ll have to make the journey from Philly for 4 all the way and a birch beer next time I get to the office. Hopefully soon. Man! I miss that place!

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