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Anthracite Coal Regions
of Central PA
By Ed Yashinsky
THINGS TO DO
Curious Goods Antiques
• Sturdy hiking boots
• A large appetite
• The desire explore WHERE TO STAY
For some reason small family-run motels are rare in these towns. If you need a place to sleep, head toward Route 81 and where you will find many hotel chains. WHERE TO EAT
The nice thing about finding places to eat is they are almost always located along the main streets in these small towns. There’s rarely a need for reservations or directions.
Danny’s Boulevard Drive-In
The Black Diamond Bar • 717-645-8494
Granny’s • 717-874-0408
Dutch Kitchen • 717-874-3265
The Pottsville Diner • 717-628-5152
Red Lion Cafe • 717-345-8074
Buddy’s Log Cabin • 717-345-8253
The Anthracite coal region of northeast Pennsylvania lends itself perfectly to a sunny Saturday road trip. At quick glance, this region might be seen as nothing more than never-ending coal heaps that reflect years of ravage by coal barons, but there are many interesting sites in this area about 45 miles northeast of Harrisburg. To better appreciate our trip, grab a map and a highlighter and mark the following path:
81 North to 901 West to 61 West to 42 North to 61 East to 443 West to 81 South
Our only planned stop on this One Tank Getaway was Centralia—a tiny coal town that struggles to exist despite an underground coal fire that started accidentally on the edge of town in 1962. However, it seems unfair to pigeonhole this entire region by a near-deserted town, so we decided to get a cross section of the region by traveling approximately 40-miles through the numerous towns located along Route 61 East from Centralia to Pottsville.
Heading north on Route 81, we took the Minersville exit toward Ashland. As we searched for Centralia, we noticed a sign for an Anthracite Coal Museum. Although the museum and the nearby Pioneer Coal Mine, which features train rides into an old mine, were closed for the season (opened April through November), the attractions are much more than a tourist trap and would make for good day trip.
Back on Route 61, a road closed sign marked the road to Centralia. As we approached one of the more famous repercussions of the Centralia fire—a cavernous crack across Route 61 that closed the highway—we noticed a small road that snaked around the edge of the damaged highway. After about a quarter of a mile, Centralia (or what’s left of Centralia) unfolds before your eyes. The few remaining houses—18 houses with 34 residents—have brick buttresses on each side to hold up the one-time row homes. An auto parts business sits on one corner of the square, but vacant lots and roads to nowhere dominate the vista.
On the edge of town near the cemetery, the sulfur-strong steam rises from a few hotspots. As we walked back the old coal road for a closer inspection, monstrous vapor clouds pour from a nearby gully. Hundreds of bleached-out birch trees still stand, but the putrid sulfur-soaked steam ensures they will never sport another leaf. All visible stones are warm to the touch, while earth fissures release never-ending steam that whips in the wind. The only missing element is the intense heat normally associated with a fire.
After one more pass through Ashland, we turned our sites about 10 miles east to Frackville.
These small towns all offer similar diversions: delis and meat markets with great ethnic foods, smoky bars with draft beers for less than a dollar, down-home diners and warm smiles from everyone you meet. Every town also has a firehouse (one of the community’s social centers), memorials to fallen soldiers from wars past, religious monuments and some of the most juxtaposed architecture you’ll ever see.
On Frackville’s main drag, row homes run block after block; some were unremarkable, but for every five ugly houses one makes you say, "Wow, how did they do that?" Usually the answer is that immigrant craftsmen brought their skills from Europe and incorporated them into the homes they built.
On the edge of Frackville we headed into the Dutch Kitchen for a quick bite. Half of the restaurant had all the country-kitsch one could stand. We picked the pink and black tiled diner in front, flipped through the selections on the table jukebox and enjoyed some homemade chicken pot-pie. After lunch, we jumped back on Route 61 toward Pottsville.
After a winding eight-mile drive, the metropolis (comparatively speaking) of Pottsville appears. The Pottsville downtown area covers several square blocks. We stopped at Curious Goods, an incredibly cool antique store that houses two floors of the most useless items of Americana you will ever need. Next we headed east on Centre Street toward Mahantongo Street—a San Francisco-style hill that lays claim to the Yuengling Brewery. Although the Yuengling Brewery is unassuming from the outside, the brewery tour, museum/gift shop and hospitality room make America’s Oldest Brewery a must-see.
As we headed out of Pottsville, we noticed a sign for Jerry’s Classic Cars and Collectibles Museum, but the sun was getting low in the sky and we had a few more towns to pass through.
We continued on Route 61 to Schuylkill Haven and then hopped on 443 West toward Pine Grove. At this point, the coalfields finally give way to rolling farmland. Pine Grove is a very small town (one traffic light) surrounded by smaller hamlets that use the Pine Grove name when telling people where they live. After several miles, the number of houses began to decrease and soon the familiar names of McDonald’s and Arby’s dotted the landscape. We were back at Route 81, and our journey back to Harrisburg (and a return to a 65 mph speed limit) was a mere 40 minutes away.