Of the Season: 5 Fascinating Ghost TownsAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Bill Clawser
Seeking out ghost towns has long been a passion of mine. These abandoned edifices hold a fascinating allure of the past that invites me to visit. My brother Clair, navigator, and I have visited 68 sites in 23 states, including several in Pennsylvania. Here are five of special interest. What better time to plan a visit than in autumn, when spirits are most lively!
Alvira: Located in Union County, adjacent to the Federal Correctional Complex, this community was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1942 using eminent domain, for use as a munitions depot. Residents were given six weeks to vacate their property, with the promise they could repurchase their land after the war, at the original price. This never happened.
The site was used for a TNT factory, various support buildings and over 100 earth-covered bunkers to store explosives.
If you go: Visible ruins include various roadways, three cemeteries, a church—on the prison compound—and bunkers, some are sealed, others are open. Exercise caution.
Centralia is perhaps the most famous PA ghost town. In 1980, it was a thriving community of more than 1,000 residents. By 2020, it was reduced to about 10, due to a coal mine fire burning beneath the town.
Anthracite coal mining began in Centralia in 1856 and continued for a century. The town was a scene of much violence, not the least of which involved the Molly Maguires, in an attempt to organize a mine-workers union.
There are various opinions as to how the mine fire got started. Some think it was the result of burning trash at the landfill. Whatever the case, when smoke and fumes began billowing from the ground, action had to be taken. The U.S. Congress allocated millions of dollars for family relocation. Most people accepted the offer and moved out, after which their homes were destroyed. Some held on; five homes remain today, after years of litigation and settlements.
If you go: Visitors are discouraged and are greeted by empty, paved streets. Proceed with caution.
Pithole City: Pithole City is the epitome of a flash-in-the-pan. This oil-rich town, in Vernango County, near Oil City, sprang up in May 1865. By December, its population swelled to 20,000, and was reduced to 2,000 the following year; by 1870, only 237 people remained.
The cause of this rapid rise and fall is tied to oil. When the first oil wells came online on the Holmden Farm, investment and well constructions followed. However, with so many wells draining the earth, the oil supply dried up quickly. People left as quickly as they had arrived. Life in Pithole City was typical of so many get-rich-quick towns in early America.
If you go: The site is open for visitors to walk the mown grass streets and read signs denoting the locations of former buildings. The visitors center has excellent displays depicting the town’s heyday. Visit DrakeWell.org for more information.
French Azilum was a planned settlement in Bradford County with international intrigue. Built in 1793 for refugees fleeing the French Revolution and slave resistance in St. Dominique, it was financed by a group of wealthy Philadelphians with an eye toward profit. The 300-acre plot consisted of log houses and small-town shops, along with a farm and gardens.
According to legend, the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, and her two children, were to settle there. However, she was guillotined in October of 1793.
The experiment failed when the financiers went bankrupt, causing many residents to return to their homelands, while others settled in local villages. By 1803 French Azilum became a true ghost town.
If you go: None of the original buildings remain. However, visitors will see three reconstructed and replaced cabins, one of which serves as a museum amid a setting of beautiful fields and fences. More information is at TheFrenchAzilum.com.
Curtin Village is a 3,000-acre plot consisting of the Eagle Iron Works and workers’ village located in Centre County, near Bellefonte. The Iron Works blast furnace was the last one to operate in the U.S. The pig iron produced here, from 1820-1921, was sent to a nearby forge to make wrought iron for industrial use.
In 1921, the furnace burned to the ground. It was abandoned until 1970, when it was faithfully reconstructed as it is today, as a museum with impressive foundations and beam work.
The nearby village of log homes was where most of the 180 workers lived. It was a self-sufficient town, with all the typical necessities available through the company store.
If you go: The Curtin home—a Federal-style mansion—is on the property and available for guided tours.
More information is at CurtinVillage.com.