Why do people drive from across the country to visit Centralia, Pennsylvania?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself after a few recent trips through the abandoned town with a decades-old mine fire still raging beneath the ground. There’s little to see. Nothing to do. But people still arrive in droves on nice days.
I’ve been grappling recently with the future of the Coal Region’s most infamous ghost town and how it could be utilized to teach the complex environmental and social history of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
These are the questions I’ve been asking and I think are worth thinking about as a community:
Why isn’t Centralia considered a historic site and treated as such?
As the site of a once thriving coal town, there is an entire community’s history worth exploring. From the town’s development in the 1860s through its collapse and demolition in the the late 20th century, Centralia presents an opportunity to explore the history of all Coal Region communities. It also raises questions about the relationship between the people of the Coal Region and the commodity buried beneath their feet. People moved into the Coal Region in search of jobs in the anthracite industry. But what happens when that is also the source of a town’s destruction?
The upsetting story of Centralia provides a perfect place to explore the Coal Region’s history and culture on the site of its most famous disaster.
How can we tell the story of Centralia?
I’ve called Centralia the “Gettysburg of the Coal Region.” Thousands of people travel for hundreds of miles to come visit a grid of empty streets, tall grass, and to look at offensive graffiti on an abandoned highway. There is NOTHING to tell visitors of the community that once existed here.
Visitors don’t learn about the people who lived here. They don’t know the stories of the children who grew up in this coal stained town in Columbia County. They don’t hear about the generations of working class people who lived and died here. Nothing shows them how a disaster tore Centralia apart, how the mine fire capitalized on the same veins of coal that once brought workers to this mountainside.
What if we treated Centralia like we treat other historic sites in Pennsylvania? Like Gettysburg or Flight 93 National Monument. Those are places with incredible historical importance for our state and our nation.
Centralia is a place that has importance in American history. What if we treated it with the reverence it deserves? This is after all a community where people lived and died for more than 100 years that was destroyed by an environmental disaster.
I’d love to see those empty streets and abandoned stretches of town populated with historic markers or signs that tell the story of the people and events that built and, ultimately destroyed, Centralia, Pennsylvania.
The land is already in the hands of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Why not utilize it?
Part of the tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire is that the town split over how to handle the mine fire in the 1980s. Ultimately, Pennsylvania made the decision to utilize eminent domain to take over control of the land and level what remained of Centralia.
And the state continues to control the ground today. It’s not being used for anything why now, why not use it as a historical resource (ideal) or as a park with historic signage?
Visitors are spending money on their visits to Centralia. Why not give them an experience and attract even more visitors in the future?
Each visitor making a stop at Centralia needs to get lunch somewhere. They need to buy gas somewhere. Heck, they may even want to experience more of the cultural and historical organizations in the Coal Region. We often discuss the economic difficulties faced by the Coal Region today. Centralia brings in tourists despite that fact that it is little more than an empty field. Why not create a historic site, interpret the history, and lure even more visitors into the Coal Region?
I believe we have an incredible story to tell in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Tourism is a massive industry in this nation and across the globe. Let’s think creatively and utilize the historical resources available to us to interpret our history and boost the local economy.
These are questions I’ve been mulling over in the past few months. Please comment below if you have any thoughts or concerns. I realize that there are many obstacles standing in the way of Centralia ever becoming a legitimate historic site or park. But I think it is worth exploring the options available to us. As a public historian, I’d love to see the story of Centralia explored and made available to the thousands of people who are already visiting the abandoned town.
Featured Image: Centralia, Pennsylvania in March 2019