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April 05, 2021

Apple trees, butterflies to be introduced in Centralia, Pennsylvania's abandoned coal town

The former home of Graffiti Highway will get new life with help from an environmental group

Environment Nature
Centralia Apple Trees GRACE DICKINSON/for PhillyVoice

Graffiti Highway, a popular place to visit in Centralia, was covered up with dirt last year as tourists overran the area in Columbia County. Now an environmental group will work to restore the ecosystem and wildlife habitats of the Pennsylvania ghost down, where an underground coal fire has been burning since 1962.

One year after Pennsylvania officials shut down Graffiti Highway, the deserted stretch of road that has become a destination in Centralia, an environmental group has plans to bring new life to the largely abandoned coal town in Columbia County.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation will plant 250 apple trees in Centralia during an event on April 17, part of a larger plan to restore the town's ecosystem and improve wildlife habitats there.

Centralia, located about 85 miles northwest of Philadelphia, has long been a source of legend in Pennsylvania. In 1962, an underground fire that began in a coal mine spread and compelled the relocation of the town's residents. A population of about 2,000 in 1950 had dwindled to just five people in 2017.

The fire continues to burn underground to this day and it could be spreading.

During the mid-2000's, an abandoned portion of Route 61 that runs through Centralia become a pilgrimage site for graffiti artists, who decorated the 3/4-mile stretch of cracked pavement. The colorful patchwork of tags and grass jutting out of the smoky highway made Centralia a photographer's dream.

The highway was covered with dirt last April as people flocked there during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Centralia has also been a site used for illegal dumping, and litter has accumulated from those who visited over the years.

Each year, EPCAMR has held cleanups to get rid of the garbage and other debris in the town, but this year they'll be setting the bar higher.

The tree planting is funded by ISI and Mental Insight Foundation to help beautify the area, with tree donations and other supplies coming from Wafler Nursery, Brace’s Orchard, Heller Orchards and other organizations.

EPCAMR also has joined with the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, which will donate shelters for the trees and provide native trees that will be planted during the next annual cleanup in October 2021.

"Additionally, we are preparing the area to become an official Monarch Butterfly Waystation. We are excited to grow milkweed and other pollinator plants," EPCAMR officials said. "We plan to work with local community programs to raise butterflies, culminating in a fall release of the butterflies at the location."

Information about volunteering for the April 17 event — which will follow COVID-19 safety protocols — can be found EPCAMR's website.

Centralia's underground fire has made it a fascinating case study in biology and microorganisms, as covered in the video below from Verge Science.

In a few years time, with help from EPCAMR and its partner organizations, Centralia should have a little more life to celebrate.