CENTRALIA — State police are reminding people that spray painting old Route 61 is illegal, but the graffiti is more than illegal, it’s nearly a mile of memories.
“Centralia is unique in its entire situation with it being now abandoned and it was once a relatively large community, at least in the southern end of Columbia County. It had multiple churches and businesses but it’s now essentially an abandoned town,” Cpl. Corey Wetzel, patrol unit supervisor, said Wednesday. “We want everyone to be aware it is illegal and they can be charged with criminal mischief.”
Vehicles once traveled over the 0.7-mile road, an original part of Route 61, until it became too damaged for traffic. A mine fire has been burning under the borough since 1962, causing nearly all of its residents to evacuate and leaving the roads in disrepair with massive cracks and plant overgrowth.
Now, people travel on foot over the graffiti highway for tourism and memories.
“I took several pictures of it. Some of them are cool designs and stuff like that but with graffiti, it’s something that everyone once in their life has done or will do. They think, ‘Oh, this is a really cool place to do it and a lot of people are going to come through and see my work.’ It’s an abandoned road so they probably think no one is going to care but now people are caring about it,” Roy McFadden, 28, of New York, said Saturday.
The highway is now plastered with graffiti after years of tourism — some crude and some much more meaningful.
Spray painted love notes and messages of hope and peace are spread down the crumbled road between foul messages and pictures of private parts.
“It may be just an abandoned highway, but it’s a very peaceful place to go and I can totally feel the history when I’m walking down the … highway. A lot of the graffiti is pretty crude, but my favorite thing to do is just walk slowly and try to find new pieces of art I haven’t seen before,” Nicholas Cellucci, 21, of Bloomsburg, said.
Messages light up the decrepit road like “fight like a girl” with a breast cancer ribbon and “Look up. You’re welcome,” directing people to look up at the beautiful view.
The graffiti has always been a problem, Wetzel said, but it has increased over the years with tourists.
“If you search for urban exploration, Centralia will come up. If you go there on a weekend, you’ll see a number of vehicles parked — presumably people out looking,” Wetzel said.
“It’s been one of the places I wanted to visit for a while because it was part of the reason for the ‘Silent Hill’ movies and games because there was smoke coming out of the town and hills and stuff like that and this was one of their inspirations for the movie,” McFadden said. “I’ve always wanted to come and see what they hype was about.”
Centralia may attract visitors with the graffiti highway, but they’re also interested in its rich history.
“My wife has family that used to live around here in Danville … She said there was steam coming out of the ground from a mine fire that’s been going on for years,” Robert Magobet, 54, of Philadelphia, said.
Visitors travel hundreds of miles to see the steam emitted from the cracks in the evacuated borough.
“Walking down the road I’m like I can’t believe this was an actual road that was used at one time with how overgrown and cracked it is now,” McFadden said. “The fact that the trees are just over growing in the road — I think it’s awesome that mother nature is finally reclaiming what’s hers.”
“The ground is actually like buckled up, it looks like the ground is coming up. This big piece of black top is just swollen,” Magobet said.
“It’s kind of cool because it’s almost post-apocalyptic like if there were no people left, this is kind of what it would look like if everybody died,” James Ravelle, Bethlehem, said.
Steam isn’t the only thing emitted from the underground fire.
“There are areas where the fire is burning underground and the ground is subject to caving there are inherent dangers with that — gas and fumes being expelled through the ground,” Wetzel said. “There are gases that are being emitted by mine fires. They are hazards.”
Centralia is part of the state police at Bloomsburg’s regular patrol for the graffiti issues and safety of visitors.
“We don’t encourage people to go there, but if they do they should take precautions. Don’t go alone and let people know where you’re going,” Wetzel said.
Many visiting the borough think police patrolling to stop the graffiti is a waste of time.
“Who cares? It’s an abandoned section of highway nobody is driving down it. It’s listed on Google Maps as ‘Route 61 destroyed,’ ” Ravelle said.
“If they’re not doing that, they’re probably going to be doing something worse so I would choose the lesser of the two evils and let them graffiti it up,” McFadden said.
“For that, it’s not like it’s in the city and they are up on businesses and stuff like that,” Magobet said.