CENTRALIA — An abandoned portion of Route 61 commonly known as Graffiti Highway will be a thing of the past in Centralia, according to a borough official and project manager.
Land owner Pagnotti Enterprises, of Wilkes-Barre, hired Fox Coal Co. Mining to truck 400 loads — between 8,000 to 10,000 tons of dirt — over the next three days to cover the unofficial popular tourist destination. The abandoned .74-mile stretch of roadway, despite being on private property and no trespassing allowed, has become a landmark for illegal visitors for its smoking cracked asphalt and hundreds of spray painted words and images.
“They got sick of the complaints and the liability,” said Tom Hynoski, the secretary, fire chief and emergency management agency director for Centralia. “People steal stuff, they spray paint in the cemetery, it’s about time something gets done.”
Since Gov. Wolf ordered non-essential businesses to shut down and issued a stay at home order for Pennsylvania residents due to the COVID-19 crisis, Hynoski said the area has seen an influx of people, more than usual.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Hynoski. “Oh my God, it’s crazy. They're supposed to be staying home due to the COVID-19, but they're coming from New York and New Jersey to be here."
Centralia, located in Columbia County just a few miles outside Mount Carmel in Northumberland County, is perhaps Pennsylvania’s most famous ghost town after an underground mine fire started in 1962. Only a handful of houses and residents, the municipal building, a few cemeteries, and the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church just over the borough line still remain.
Otherwise, there are crumbling stone foundations, empty lots and an old portion of Route 61 commonly known as Graffiti Highway.
In 2018, PennDOT vacated and turned over the .74-mile stretch of Graffiti Highway in Centralia and Conyngham Township to Pitreal Corp, a coal mining company and subsidiary of Pagnotti Enterprises in Wilkes-Barre. Twenty-five years ago, PennDOT closed a portion of the road and constructed a new road around the old portion.
David Witchey, the chief clerk of Columbia County, said the county gets more calls about the highway than the official attractions in Columbia County. People have called from as far away as Los Angeles, he said.
"It's a shame," said Witchey about the dirt project. "I recognize that people like it, but I understand their decision. If it were my property, I'd have done the same."
Hynoski said he and other officials have been back and forth with the coal company to discuss ways to keep the visitors off the highway. State troopers have been patrolling more too and chased away nearly 100 people on Monday alone, he said.
Fox Coal Co. President Vince Guarna, of Mount Carmel, said the dirt is being brought in from a mining operation in Wilburton #2 about three miles away and then the ground will be seeded to grow trees. The idea is to eliminate the appeal of the highway so fewer people come to spray paint and fewer people are there to vandalize.
"People come here and do damage in the town here," said Guarna. "Cemeteries are getting vandalized. People are lighting fires with tires. People are getting hurt."
Hynoski said the project will not solve all the problems caused by visitors.
"But it will cut it in half," he said. "You can't paint on dirt."
Bobby Hughes, the executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation that hosts regular Centralia Cleanup events, said Centralia has become a dumping ground from visitors littering and leaving tires, electronics and dumpsters full of garbage.
EPCAMR planned to have a tree planting event on Saturday but rescheduled it to the fall due to the COVID-19 crisis.