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The End of Centralia's Graffiti Highway

Atlas Obscura reports the end of a stretch of old highway in Delaware that over the years has become decorated with graffiti.

A trio of camera-toting 20-somethings stumble out of a Delaware-plated Honda Civic onto the shoulder of a rural Pennsylvania highway. It’s summer 2020, and amid the pandemic, they’ve road-tripped nearly three hours up circuitous, mountain roads to reach their off-the-grid destination: the notorious, smoldering, coal-country ghost town of Centralia. They’ve come to this remote corner of Columbia County to take in one sight in particular, the vast spray-painted surface a mile of the former Route 61, commonly known as “Graffiti Highway.”

But, to their surprise, the promised anarchic, visual feast just beyond the “No Trespassing” signs is gone. As of early April 2020, the colorful art, scrawled wisdom, and periodic vulgarity of the highway was officially laid to rest by the property’s current owners, Pagnotti Enterprises, on the grounds that one person’s postapocalyptic wonderland is another entity’s liability. The road’s messages—from “You fell in love with my flower but not my roots,” to “Out of nothing came everything,” to “OBEY … if you want to”—now rest beneath pyramids of dirt.

Formally closed in 1993 due to a decades-long mine fire simmering beneath its surface, this abandoned 0.74-mile stretch of road had achieved cult status in the first decade of the 2000s. After years of disuse, it took on new life as an artistic commons adorned with everything from pineapple-carapaced turtles to less-than-family-friendly fare, often of the male anatomical variety. By 2017, it was anecdotally cited by some locals as the sixth-most-visited attraction in the state. Its warped surface was a magnet not just for taggers, but also for horror fans and gamers in search of one of the inspirations behind Silent Hill (the 2006 movie based on the video game), mountain bikers, skaters, ATV enthusiasts, photographers, local party people, ghost hunters, and the generally curious.

The Graffiti Highway had become a destination in its own right.
The Graffiti Highway had become a destination in its own right. Flickr/R. Miller/CC BY 2.0

Around the Graffiti Highway, a new community sprang up, one born of—yet completely separate from and sometimes opposed by—the one that preceded it. As Johnson notes, it became a space where people chose to assert, through their tags, that “I was here, I can be here, I’m a part of this.” With interest fueled by Facebook groups, the Silent Hill franchise (Roger Avary, one of the screenwriters behind the film adaptation of the horror game, cites Centralia as an atmospheric muse), and cable television features, it morphed into Centralia 2.0. The Graffiti Highway became Centralia’s new public square, offering visitors a barrage of constantly evolving, often droll, visual novelty.

As locals reported, graffiti had indeed migrated off the highway.
As locals reported, graffiti had indeed migrated off the highway. 80schic84 (Atlas Obscura User)

As the highway’s popularity grew, the remaining locals called for increased patrols and citations. Some reported that the graffiti was creeping away from the highway and into neighboring areas, including cemeteries. Planned events, including a Barbie Power Wheels race that drew hundreds of RSVPs in February 2017, prompted enforced closures. Still, other observers—including Dave DeKok, author of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire—point out that accidents on the site were few and far between. On April 8, DeKok told a local news outlet, “It was just a lot of people coming together. It was a lot of fun and it wasn’t hurting anyone.”

During the week of April 6, a three-day burial process took place. A convoy of 400 dump trucks descended on the area, delivering between 8,000 and 10,000 tons of dirt. One by one, their beds were lifted and tailgates opened. Cascades of dirt piled onto the colorful marks below.

The Graffiti Highway’s end has not gone unmourned or uncontested: several change.org petitions have called on officials and business leaders to reverse the burial. At press time, one appeal to Governor Tom Wolf had nearly reached its goal of 35,000 signatures. Impassioned, wistful remembrances, forlorn musings, and heartfelt pleas fill the comments. People refer to it as “one of the most beautiful places in Pennsylvania,” a “place of free expression, creativity and adventure.” One person declares its destruction, “a disservice to the beauty of human art juxtaposed in nature.”

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