Legend Tripping Centralia, Past and Present

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Centralia, PA would be in a proverbial Hall of Fame for legend tripping. It is an odd place, and it’s even a creepy place under the right weather/daylight/seasonal conditions. I heard from a friend about this (mostly) abandoned coal town in the summer of 2001. He had read a brief passage about it in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson mentions a town with a few dozen inhabitants, with streets, mailboxes, driveways serving homes that had long been razed; streets lost to massive, smoldering sinkholes. The very same night that my friend told me about Centralia, we went off to go see it for ourselves.

This is what the closed section of the abandoned highway looked like in 2001-2005, when we made yearly trips. There were a few graffiti marks right at the beginning of the road, and then it was desolate for a mile or so. Centralia is the type of place where you can feel that you are passing from the ordinary to the strange.

Centralia2003

Centralia is a living legend. The coal fires still burn, but not as noticeably as twenty years ago. The deep fissures in the abandoned highway (which a grown man could stand in, at one time) have been filled in. A few more houses have been torn down. In 2003 you knew when you were in the ‘center’ of Centralia. There was a manicured park in the center of town, a grouping of homes near the crossroads. I went back in the summer of 2017 with my kids and I drove past the town!

Here is the same abandoned highway(pictured above) in 2017:

centralia2017

I don’t know that I’m upset with what Instagramers have done in terms of popularizing this special place. The graffiti/rainbow road is something different, almost worthy of notoriety in its own right. Centralia is a living thing, its legend is only growing. I don’t know that I’d want to go on the same legend trip twice.

John and I write weird fiction with real places like Centralia in mind. Locations that we sometimes even name(or just mildly obscure) that a reader can visit for themselves. At the Cemetery Gates: Year One and Corpse Cold: New American Folklore are riddled with these locations. These places we’ve visited as kids and adults, and have been inspired to re-imagine. We’re contemplating putting together a collection of stories that focus on real, strange locations in Upstate New York, with photographs and a map, something one could travel in a day or a couple of afternoons.

-Joe Sullivan

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