For the 50+ Traveler

You might think of Pennsylvania as a low-key, fairly homey state -- a quiet place to visit aside from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia.

And it’s true that Pennsylvania is a state with American history in the central sights. There are the best Philadelphia museums and fantastic Amish markets in Lancaster County, plus miles and miles of mining terrain. But there are some strange Pennsylvania destinations tourists may find interesting, too. Centralia, Pennsylvania, a modern-day ghost town abandoned by nearly every resident, is one of them.

The abandoned town of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

What Happened In Centralia?

In 1962, a trash fire in a strip mine beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania, started burning. The fire has been going ever since, causing strange, dangerous occurrences in the ground beneath the city. Coal-seam fires aren’t really anything unusual -- they happen in mines all over the world and there are many others in the state of Pennsylvania alone.

But the fire set ablaze under this mining town burned for decades before residents really understood what was going on, or realized it was dangerous. When 12-year-old Centralia resident Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole that opened up in his backyard and nearly died, concern finally kicked in and the townsfolk decided it was getting to be a serious problem.

The steam puffing out of the sinkholes all over town has toxic levels of carbon monoxide, and the ground temperature was up to 180 degrees in some locations. By 1983, the government allocated $42 million to relocating residents to safer locations. Most people gladly moved away at this point, but a few folks remained. The government fought them and evicted many from their homes, and by October 2013 only 10 people remained in the small town. They settled lawsuits against the government and were permitted to remain in the town until they choose to leave or pass on, but that doesn’t mean the environment’s any safer, or less intriguing, than it was when the evictions occurred.

Graffiti on the abandoned road in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

What Does Centralia Look Like Today?

Centralia was once a small town bustling with a community of families and business owners. The coal mines fueled the economy and, overall, residents thrived in the happy, tight-knit community.

But today those who walk the town’s streets won’t see anyone out and about. The city is mostly destroyed. Buildings are gone, graffiti-covered highways have long, uneven cracks through them, and the whole place has an eerie, wild feel to it.

If you do venture through the town, you’ll potentially see some strange happenings. Sinkholes may pop open and pour out streams of carbon monoxide steam. Pets and wild animals frequently vanished into these holes. Sewage drains and other man-made openings also spew out the dangerous smoke. Residents know to avoid it, but some claim they’ve gotten sick from it.

Most of the buildings are gone. After the government bought the town out, they knocked most of them down immediately. You also won’t see signs for Centralia on the roads around it. The government even removed the name Centralia from one remaining municipal building.

Steam rising from the road in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Can You Visit Centralia?

Many potential tourists have asked if Centralia is safe to visit, and if so, is it even possible?

Technically, Centralia is not a tourist destination, but it is generally safe to visit, as long as you follow a few precautions.

The primary concern in Centralia -- especially for visitors who aren’t used to it -- is the possibility of the ground giving way beneath your feet. The fire beneath the ground has created a much stronger likelihood of this occurrence, which means you may be at risk. Some of this is also because the fire in the mines has burned through the stabilizing beams and timbers that brace up the abandoned coal mine tunnels. These disappearing beams lead to mine collapses, which contributes to more sinkholes and sinking ground.

The other main danger for non-residents is the gases that are released from the ground. They are made up of strong pockets of carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide, and can asphyxiate those who get too close or stand downwind of the steam and smoke.

Fewer spots are venting gas, however, and because the fire burned out most of the mining timbers decades ago, mine collapses are less and less frequent.

If you plan on visiting this strange ghost town, use caution. Grab a walking stick to help with unexpectedly uneven ground, stay on the roadways and paths, and keep away from any venting steam or gases you see drifting up from holes or drains. If the ground feels unusually soft or unstable, move away quickly to avoid any potential collapse.

Steam rising from the road in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

What Is There To See In Centralia?

If you do decide to make a visit to this unusual destination, several things may interest to you.

The first is Graffiti Highway. The long-deserted stretch of Route 61 has been almost completely covered over by spray paint artwork left by residents and visitors alike. Decades back, officials were concerned with a sinkhole opening up along the route, so they began diverting traffic away from a one-mile section that has remained permanently closed to motor vehicles. Many people have left messages, artwork, and signatures to commemorate their visits to the town.

Another place of interest in Centralia is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church on Paxton Street. This is the only church still holding regular services in the town and is your best bet for seeing actual human life around the almost otherworldly place. Trespassing signs warn tourists away from entering outside of service hours, though. But because the building is beautiful, it’s still worth the drive up the hill to see it. It’s built on solid rock and remains one of the safest places in the town.

Of course, taking a drive through the town -- or a walk, if that’s possible -- is the most interesting thing to do. It can be rather spooky, thanks to nature’s reclamation of structures that haven’t been touched in years and the near-total lack of human presence. From the church, looking down toward town, you’re likely to spot abandoned structures poking through the trees. Driving the streets themselves, you’ll see empty places where houses once sat. The foundations were left by the government in many cases, and new growth has sprung up around them nearly erasing man’s footprint on the town.

A warning sign in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Other Tips For Visiting Centralia

If you enjoy offbeat history and unusual destinations that transport you away from your own day-to-day, Centralia might be your cup of tea. But in addition to the town’s history and Centralia safety tips, there are some other things you should keep in mind if you visit.

This is a destination where tragedy has struck -- and residents still remain. First and foremost, approach the town with a sense of respect, and even reverence. The folks who still live here do so because they love their homes. If you see people working in their yards, attending church, or walking elsewhere about the small town, remember that they are not there for the benefit of tourists.

Also, keep your expectations in check. Centralia has become a fascination for many people, but it has not become a destination per se, or the usual tourist trap. There are no museums, tours, or visitor centers. You probably only need an hour or two to explore this small town before you continue your road trip through Pennsylvania.

Fascinated by offbeat, or even creepy, destinations? You need to meet Hoia Baciu Forest, the Bermuda Triangle of Romania, and you might even want to book a night at one of these eight haunted houses in the U.S. that you can actually stay in.