Graffiti Highway has become a favorite Pennsylvania attraction for travelers from all over the United States. The Highway’s lure has grown organically by word of mouth throughout the country attracting visitors almost year-round to the old mining ghost town of Centralia, PA. Despite the fact that Graffiti Highway has No Trespassing & Private Property signs posted, and occasional efforts by the State Police to fine individuals, Graffiti Highway has become a Mecca for travelers from all over the country. There are no official counts of the number of visitors who are attracted to Graffiti Highway annually, but one can easily guess that it’s in the thousands to tens of thousands.
On any given weekend a steady stream of visitors can be observed making the trek up the local hillside dotted with tendrils of curling smoke from the ongoing mine fire to see the graffiti and artwork scrolled across the blacktop. As the Spring turns to Summer, there is a constant stream of sightseers filled with expectation ready to explore and discover how this stretch of roadway came to be known as Graffiti Highway. Autumn offers tourists a extraordinary treat greeting them with splashes of burnt orange, red and yellow hues that wrap around the mountainside providing a perfect backdrop of Fall foliage that rivals any in the Northeast. No wonder this has become such a popular attraction and day trip destination for so many people.
Due to the ongoing mine fire Centralia has become a local phenomenon attracting tourists, news media, filmmakers, writers, and other curious folks over the decades interested in telling its story. Now thanks to Graffiti Highway a new allure has been generated for those seeking to learn more about this Pennsylvania tragedy. The story of Centralia represents a heartbreaking tale of the decline of the coal region, and continued economic depression that has surrounded the area since the early 1950’S. Although this story has been shared worldwide thanks to the internet, its telling has not produced any positive results for the region itself either economically or environmentally.
The telling of Centralia’s story is somehow different now due in part to the recent popularity of Graffiti Highway. Many individuals from around the country would like to see the highway along with the history of Centralia preserved. In a way, Graffiti Highway has become a symbol and constant reminder of an environmental tragedy that impacted all the lives of the families that once lived in this tiny coal town in Northeast PA.
The best example of this desire and renewed interest to preserve the highway is a petition started by Luke Maffei on change.org. The petition was started about one year ago and as of the writing of this article has over 24,000 signatures. The people who are supporting this petition represent not only Pennsylvanians but visitors from all over the United States and abroad. The petition seeks to preserve Graffiti Highway and provide for creating safe access for visitors.
Recent stories in the news have referred to the eventual transfer of this section of Old State Route 61 back to the original owners. Sadly, this eventuality has come to pass, and the land including Graffiti Highway has been conveyed back to a subsidiary of one of the local coal companies that operate in the area. If you are a visitor to Graffiti Highway, know that you are also a trespasser. The owner has the right to keep people off this strip of highway, and they have the right to enforce it by any legal means available to them. The liability and safety concerns by the landowner are quite justifiable and curiosity seekers need to be aware that they are trespassing on private land.
Unfortunately, the transfer back of this property by the government was somewhat short-sighted. Those who want to see the highway and history of Centralia preserved manifested itself in a petition online directed at the Governor and local state politicians. Despite a legitimate request to these government officials, the petition has had no real impact on the preservation of the highway and gone unanswered. Prior to the transfer a better approach may have been to commission a study to evaluate the economic and cultural implications Graffiti Highway could have on the Region.
The highway continues to be visited by sightseers despite the fact they are knowingly trespassing and could be fined. Many still make the journey from all over the country and abroad to see a curiosity that is a direct outcome of the abandonment of Centralia. The highway is a living example of how a negative could be turned into a positive. The opportunity to make use of the highway to spur further recreational development is and should be a real consideration. Weiser State Forest and its District Office is a short 3-minute drive away from Graffiti Highway. A partnership between the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), PennDOT, and private landowners could be struck to use the existing momentum of Graffiti Highway to establish a new recreational area and market the area to tourists. Of course, the devil is in the details, especially from safety concerns.
Those who wish to preserve the highway need to realize it may not be possible to keep the original Graffiti Highway at its current location. An excellent alternative might be to establish a piece of ground to transplant Graffiti Highway. Weiser State Forest is literally on the doorsteps of Centralia and would be the most logical choice. DCNR would be building on an attraction that already brings thousands of visitors a year to this area. A state-sponsored attraction would allow for the story of Centralia to be told in a unique way while allowing for a safe means for visitors to enjoy a day trip. One need only use their imagination to consider the possibilities.
Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas is a perfect example of how thinking outside the box could have a positive impact on the local economy. By establishing a piece of ground on Weiser State Forest land, a new attraction could be developed for use by the public. A stretch of new blacktop could be laid down for visitors to come and enjoy the experience of spray painting and creating Graffiti Art with their friends and families. Another area could be designated where one could rent tools and dig for a few pieces of anthracite coal while learning about early mining techniques. The initiative could be further expanded to include a memorial on the history of the immigrants who lived and worked in the local coal mines.
Using an existing successful model such as Crater of Diamonds, along with taking advantage of the national interest already generated by Graffiti Highway provides the impetus for the establishment of this attraction. By using a tract of land in the existing Weiser State Forest, infrastructure and startup costs could be kept to a minimum. Here is the perfect opening for a private/government partnership that would set aside and establish a public memorial while creating a unique experience for visitors to the area.
Graffiti Highway has already created a national buzz of its own branding. What is needed now is a thoughtful allocation of resources to move it to a location close by while allowing for an enjoyable and safe experience for visitors. Tens of Thousands of people have already demonstrated their willingness to travel to this area to see this attraction. Imagine if the story of Centralia could be turned around into a positive one that could benefit the area while keeping its memory alive for everyone to experience. Imagine!
Author: Steve Bartos
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