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Under my hat: The road to nowhere

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    Graffiti Highway at Centralia, long abandoned due to a mine fire burning beneath, is a popular tourist destination, especially on weekends. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published October 20. 2018 07:29AM

 

I remember the road to nowhere in Berks County.

For many years I routinely passed through the Reading area on my way to visit interesting antique shops of Adamstown and Denver.

If I remember correctly, it was a section of old Route 222.

The road was narrow and insufficient but led through a busy area. So the name was a misnomer. The road led somewhere.

Then around 2000, major construction began, and after several years, a new and wider expressway opened, cutting perhaps 20 minutes from the trip.

So now it’s possible to get to Adamstown faster. But, for me, there’s not much urge. Some of the shops and co-ops closed. Antiques aren’t as popular as they once were. The market has tanked.

Everything has a cycle. Everything in life is a matter of timing.

Last weekend, I jumped in the car and visited another Road to Nowhere. But this one truly is.

It’s the abandoned section of Route 61 connecting Ashland to Centralia.

If you want to experience living history, spend a day traveling through our historic anthracite coal and railroad towns.

Centralia, today, is an extreme example. A ghost town. I’ve written about it over the years.

The layout of each block is there, but the houses and businesses are gone.

Steam and vapors, presumably toxic, seep from ominous cracks in the land.

In 1962, a coal seam was accidentally ignited through a trash fire at a dump site, possibly an attempt to clean a landfill.

The fire simmered for years. It could’ve been extinguished, but wasn’t. Then came a shocking discovery in 1979.

Mayor John Coddington inserted a dipstick into his gas station tank to check the fuel level. He withdrew the stick and it seemed oddly hot. Curious, he lowered a thermometer into the tank and discovered the temperature of the gasoline was 172 degrees.

Two years later, 12-year-old Tom Domboski nearly fell into a carbon-monoxide-filled sinkhole that suddenly opened in his backyard. It was 150 feet deep. As a result, more tests were conducted around town.

Turned out, the ground beneath Centralia was smoldering much like coals in a furnace. The government launched a buyout to relocate and protect residents. Most of the people moved away.

Abandoned buildings were demolished.

In 2000, with few homes standing and only a handful of townsfolk still there, I interviewed residents for a Times News feature story.

“I’m staying here because it’s my home,” said an elderly man. The retired miner sat in his yard and allowed me to take photos.

“We stay where we’re comfortable and familiar. Nobody will ever make me move.”

A good, honest, blue-collar man in the twilight of his life.

I was at his place last week. The house is still there. But I didn’t knock on the door. The man would be about 110 or better.

I felt sad. Actually, I felt a sense of melancholy during the whole trip. I was consumed about the cycle of life and of the fragility of land beneath our feet.

I stood there and looked at buckled sidewalks and the abandoned Graffiti Highway, hand-colored by vandals.

Man once built that road to access a bustling coal town.

Then negligence destroyed it. Yet, on this day, there were people everywhere, all with cameras.

Curiosity is turning bleak terrain into a tourist attraction, even though most areas are posted with no trespassing signs.

It’s odd. There’s really nothing there. Yet it’s a busy place.

Centralia represents some kind of cycle, or maybe a goal post of our inquisitive minds, or a yearning to understand.

For some reason, we’re fascinated. Many of us feel we need to visit the road to nowhere.

It just doesn’t make sense. But maybe in a cruel way it does.

Maybe there is symbolism in Graffiti Highway and its bright artwork encased in toxic vapors.

Maybe it’s a monument to our folly.

Email Donald R. Serfass at the Times News at dserfass@tnonline.com.

 

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