Atlas Obscura

The Town That’s Been on Fire for 53 Years

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There is an inverse world of tourism—the antithesis to Sandals Resorts and Carnival Cruises. 

Called dark tourism, ruin tourism, urban exploration, or simply travel, depending on the context, it revolves around people visiting places with troubled histories. These are often places that are famous for what has gone wrong. Instead of the Eiffel Tower there is Chernobyl, for instance, or in place of Machu Picchu, there are the modern ruins of Detroit. 

Centralia, Pennsylvania, ranks high on this dubious list. It became internationally famous in the 1980s for the coal mine fire burning beneath it. All the while, it was slowly dissolving as an actual town. Yet even as curious travelers (ourselves included) make pilgrimages to the abandoned highway and reflect on what went wrong in Centralia, the coal mine fire that made the town so famous has moved on. Those expecting to see a fiery hellscape are met instead with new-growth forest.

Even a stretch of Route 61 abandoned due to the fire has become a playground for ATVs, motorcyclists, and barbecue cookouts. It mixes intrigued visitors with locals happy to tell them the true stories of Centralia. The entire stretch of road has an air of relaxed fun. Suddenly the “dark tourists” to Centralia are transformed into merely curious travelers getting to know the locals and spending a nice summer day in a small Pennsylvania town with an unusual history.

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