When I moved to Staunton three years ago, I soon noted that I was only one among many residents who have relocated here from other parts of the country.
Since my former connection of friends and family-in-laws are in New England, I find myself traversing Interstate 81 through Pennsylvania a few times a year. A story I’d heard intrigued me about a Pennsylvania coal town called Centralia, that has had an underground fire burning there since the 1960’s.
This time, instead of staying steady on the course home, I veered off the highway near Wilkes Barre to see it for myself.
On May 27, 1962, someone started a fire in a trash dump on the edge of town. It wasn’t known at the time, but the fire was over an open coal seam.Pennsylvania’s Abandoned Town- WGAL.com
The town of Centralia happens to sit on top of one of the largest deposits of anthracite coal in America, the Mammoth Vein. Experts have said there is enough coal there to keep the fire burning for 500 years, or even longer.
According to a website maintained by former residents of Byrnesville, a small village next to Centralia, this area was once about much more than an unfortunate fire. Starting in 1856, it was home to residents who traveled from other countries – primarily Ireland – to this part of Pennsylvania to find a better life and to work in the coal mines. After millions of dollars and several failed attempts to quench the fire, the state of Pennsylvania bought out most of the townsfolk. Once a booming population of more than 2,000, now less than a half dozen residents call Centralia home. Local officials have since worked hard to keep the tourists at bay – and safe. One 12-year-old boy nearly fell down a 150-foot hole while poking around the area back in the 1980’s,
The ghostly nature of the town puts me in mind of another story I grew up with, further north. Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts was once home to several towns vacated in the 1930’s to make way for that new body of water so folks in Boston could take showers. Under the murky water, remnants of those towns can still be found.
Once I’d left I-81 and started the 30-minute drive to the town, I began to feel a sense of anticipation and also, a bit of sheepishness. I was a bit uncomfortable due to the fact I
was, like many before me, going to look over the bones of what was once a thriving town, hoping to see actual fire and brimstone!
A Byrnesville family maintains a website chock full of history and imagery that dates back to the town’s heyday. They also maintain a religious shrine along the highway. I stopped for a closer look. They list the website on a small sign there: http://byrnesville.com.
I will tell you, there is not much to see from the main route my GPS brought me through. I did note a faint scent of sulfur, but the nearby woods have likely taken back the land and buildings these past 60 years.
One creepy thing I did note was that the roadway through Centralia – and only through Centralia – is a deep shade of red. When I attempted to drive down some unmarked side streets, I encountered an occasional vehicle. Not knowing whether they were other looky-loos like me or some sort of security – it discouraged me from looking further.