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Exploring the Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA
There is a place in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania where time now stands still. Check out what we found on the Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA.
A couple of summers ago, we were still breaking in our new camper. We spent a bunch of weekends at different campgrounds over the spring and summer and used that time to explore local to semi-local areas. It was also just a nice chance to unplug for a couple of days while learning the ins and outs of our new rig.
One of those weekends in July found us about a couple hours north of our home at Knoebels Amusement Resort. As we drove through the twisty, turny, hilly roads that lead the way to Knoebels, a small sign on the side of the road caught our eye: Centralia. The name was familiar but we couldn’t quite remember why we had heard of it before.
Google Reminded Us About the Devastating 1962 Coal Mine Fire that is Still Burning Underground
Centralia’s graffiti highway is one of the few remaining indications of a massive underground coal fire that started in 1962 and is still burning under what was once a thriving coal town. Two theories surround the events that are assumed to have started the fire.
The first theory is that 5 local volunteer firefighters were hired by the town council to incinerate the contents of the town landfill. This process had been successfully completed previously to control the size of the landfill, which was located in an old mining pit. It is theorized that fire entered an unsealed opening into the mine and began the long-lasting event.
The second theory surmises that the fire entered a similar unsealed opening, but was sparked by a trash hauler that dumped discarded hot ashes into the landfill.
Either way, the underground fire was started and has continued to burn ever since.
The Ghost Town Left by the Centralia Coal Mine Fire
The fire, with the exception of rendering the mine unusable, burned for many years and went mostly unnoticed until around 1979 when sinkholes began to open up. The fire consumed the coal underground and left behind open voids that began to collapse.
These sinkholes became natural vents for the fire and released toxic levels of carbon monoxide in the area. Eventually the area was claimed by eminent domain and declared condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
There are a few remaining residents that were allowed to remain, and continue to live in the area. (If visiting the area, be aware that they live there. Be courteous and do not trespass on their properties.) Most of the town has long since moved away and the homes that once stood were demolished leaving behind a unique area of land with paved roads leading to nothing.
How to Find the Graffiti Highway in Centralia
Note: While this area was previously owned by the state via eminent domain, in the last year it was purchased and is now private property. Our visit was more than 3 years ago, so I cannot speak to the current accessibility. However, know that it is now private property and that the current owners are enforcing this. A decision to visit is truly at your own risk and not advisable. Personally, I would not visit now that it is private property, but that’s me. You do you.
The highway, Route 61, just south of the town was plagued by these collapses and was eventually relocated to eliminate the constant need for repairs. The original highway was abandoned and has become an attraction of its own.. sort of an urban legend, if you will.
Visitors have decorated the deteriorating roadway with spray-painted graffiti (much of which is NOT family friendly in nature). Seeing the highway and viewing the collapsed sections makes it easy to envision the underground events that lead to the road’s demise. Access to the highway is blocked to vehicle traffic and not friendly to foot traffic either.
The best access to the area is at the northern part of the abandoned highway. It is easy to miss if you don’t know what you are looking for. The most common access point to the highway is nestled behind trees and man-made berms, meant to deter access, beside the cemetery at the top of the hill just before entering the ghost-town like remnants of the Borough of Centralia.
Check out our video with footage of the Graffiti Highway:
Explore the Graffiti Highway at Your Own Risk
Before you decide to pack up the kiddies and take them to this abandoned highway, there are some things you need to know. Mainly: this is a condemned area and has its own dangers to be considered. The terrain is extremely uneven and the drop to actually enter the highway is rocky and steep. The abandoned highway is a popular spot for 4 wheelers, dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles. They drive through extremely fast and you need to keep your eye out at all times in case they pop around a bend in front of you.
The area is really cut off from easy access from authorities and, at least during the time of our visit, did not appear to be regularly patrolled by the local police. If you want to explore, you are truly entering at your own risk.
Believe it or not, on the day we stopped, a hog dog vendor was set up not far from the highway access point.
#1 – this is a good sign that you are close to the access point. #2 – this guy is either begging for a citation or a marketing genius because after walking a ways down a dusty, hot highway, we pretty much threw our cold hard cash at his hot dog/chips/can of soda combo.
Final Thoughts on our Visit
I would be lying if I said that the graffiti highway in Centralia wasn’t a really cool place to see. I have grown up hearing about the town and the coal mine fire. I think this highway was closed back in the early 1990s, and it has continued to sink and buckle as it succumbs to the fire fallout from deep underground.
My kids were only 8 and 3 when we stopped to check out the highway, so I’m not sure how much they really took away from the experience. If you are into weird, off-the-beaten-path types of places, this one is definitely a destination to add to your bucket list. Make sure you heed our words of caution and understand that it is not the safest or easiest-to-access of areas.
We didn’t really know what we were getting into until we were trekking town the steep hill onto the highway. Had we known, we probably still would have visited, but possibly waited until the kids were a little older.
Have you ever visited the graffiti highway in Centralia? Would you?
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