Of Heaven and Hell

Location: Pennsylvania. Subjects: trains, flowers, ruined town, ruined hospital, other jazz.

I made my way to Scranton, PA, this past week on a business trip. Before I continue, let me extend thanks to Mark Sarno and Bruce Burke of Sarno & Son for being great hosts, and to Jo Ann, Erika, and Emily for continuing to be lovely company.

Also before I continue, let me suggest that no one ever travel with me. I have the worst possible luck with air travel. Delayed flights, engine trouble, broken A/C, bad weather, bird strikes: they’re all fair game when you fly with me. At least I’m charming (and humble!), so if nothing else I’m decent company.

After a seemingly endless day of travel, I arrived very late to Scranton and hit the hay. I have a strong interest in places with historical value or vintage style, particularly if it’s ruined and/or abandoned. To that end, the plan for Saturday was to visit the Steamtown historical park (think lots of old trains), to find the destroyed city of Centralia, and finally, to locate an abandoned and ruined hospital supposedly in the hills near Lake Scranton.

Steamtown National Historic Park

Steamtown traces the history of railroads in America, with particular focus on their role in the development of the coal industry (of which Pennsylvania is intimately tied). In addition to historical exhibits, the park boasts a number of active trains, a live repair facility, and a working turntable. They had a number of really interesting looking old trains on the various railways in the park, but most of them were off limits unfortunately.

This locomotive was in the repair facility. Note the missing engine parts in the front; I can only imagine the size of the equipment necessary to remove that part.

Throughout the day trains come onto the turntable, spin around a few times, and either go back out to the park for rides or into the service facility. You would think that a train turning in a circle wouldn’t be that interesting, but it actually is a decent spectacle. I took high ground to get this photo and laughed at all the ground-level suckers who got covered in soot and smoke once the train started spinning.

I should note that it’s cool for about 1 minute. After that it’s just a spinning train, and so I moved on.


According to my extensive knowledge as a hobo riding the rails, I can authoritatively state that all of these knobs are for the radio.


Workers in the iconic attire of train employees everywhere.

The Town That Was: Centralia

In 1962, a coal seam underneath the town of Centralia caught fire, likely the result of a badly managed trash fire in an abandoned coal mine. To this day the coal is still burning underneath the former town, having destroyed it in the process. (Fires like this are, unfortunately, very common around the world. Some, like the Gates of Hell, are natural gas fires. One of the oldest coal fires is estimated to have been burning for 6,000 years.)

After years of living next to and above the coal fire, the citizens of Centralia were eventually bought out by the state and federal governments and moved to other areas. Once they were gone, the authorities tore the city down (although some persist in living there to this day). Visiting the site now, very little remains. There are vacant lots and overgrown streets but not much else to signify a human presence. The two most striking indicators of the catastrophe are toxic smoke rising out of the ground in various places, and a  destroyed section of route 61, which suffered major damage as a result of ground shifts from the fire.

For a relatively short, but very interesting documentary on Centralia, check out “The Town That Was.”

Walking down the old part of 61 is both comedic and sad. In the last few years it’s been turned into an active graffiti canvas. There are a number of clever and beautiful tags, as well as some very funny–and very sophomoric–illustrations. Here’s one that greets you as you head south.

Arriving at the subsidence is weird. The ground is very hot (a reminder that the fire is not far underground), and white smoke rises out of the pavement in various places. The smoke wasn’t particularly heavy on this day, although I’ve seen pictures where it’s been really thick.  The whole scene looks (and smells!) like something from a Hollywood horror set. Below are two different parts of the damage.

Here are a few of my favorite tags.

There are 3 cemeteries within the boundaries of old Centralia, all within about a quarter mile of each other. The largest of the 3 lies very near to one of the most scarred areas (off South Street). These flowers were tied to a random corner of the chain link surrounding it.

This is a shortish long-exposure overlooking the Russian Orthodox cemetery, the smallest of the three. I stood in the grass just outside of the gate and tried to capture the light trails created from lightning bugs streaking over the graves. Having never seen lightning bugs, I was transfixed not only by their simple presence, but also from the haunting impression that I was witnessing souls at play above their headstones. Having stood there for too long, I was positively devoured by evil, unknown bugs in the tall grass.

After leaving Centralia I went looking for the West Mountain Sanitarium. Unfortunately for me, I was given the wrong location. As a storm moved in and the wind built, I found myself turning down an unmarked and overgrown forest road at midnight. Noticing that there was literally an eerie white light shining from deep within the foggy and dense foliage where no one lived, I decided to try again during daylight.

Longwood Gardens

I won’t spend much time explaining Longwood Gardens, other than to say they’re massive and simply incredible. If you’re ever near Philadelphia, you owe it to yourself to visit (particularly if you’re a fan of orchids, of which they have something like 900 varieties).

Here are a few more from my time at the garden. Click to enlarge.

Nay Aug Park and the West Mountain Sanitarium

On Monday I talked Bruce into trying to find the sanitarium with me now that I had the correct location. (When going to scary, abandoned facilities in the middle of an old forest, it’s always advisable to bring a friend. That way when the zombies, ghosts, or monsters attack, you’ve now got a 50/50 chance of survival).

Whilst Bruce finished up some work I quickly ran over to Nay Aug park, ran down to the gorge and took  like 3 photos before running out. The park looked really cool, but having found my primary target (plus a train hanging out on a bridge for some reason), I drove out to pick up Bruce and head up to the hills.

The West Mountain Sanitarium was built in the early 1900s as a place to help sufferers of TB. Apparently, it was abandoned several decades ago and subsequently set on fire a couple of times by vandals. Although it’s in rough shape (and very dangerous in some places), there are parts of it still intact. Throughout various structures one can find old beds, documents, and other signs of its former purpose.

Although the tubes are rife with stories of the place being haunted, the only other life form we saw was a frog in one of the basements.

Modern visitors have left their mark on a number of the buildings.

I originally planned to tell you that this was the site of the old crematorium where they burned the bodies of those that died from the torture experiments, but that would be dishonest. So instead, I’ll tell you that this was where they simply stacked the bodies of those that died in the torture experiments.  (No, not really. I don’t know what this was.)

The roof on most of the buildings had either collapsed or was in the process of collapsing. Ever the erstwhile cautionary, I merrily tramped my way under this one.

Oh look, a scary basement. Normal person: “let’s not go in it.” Jake and Bruce: “let’s see if there’s another entrance. Hooray!”

And there was. My flashlight well dead by this point, I could barely see as I sloshed through the creepy, wet, and very dark basements.

Old accounting paperwork, fused to a desk.

There were a number of these “you’re going to die” type signs throughout the buildings, telling you to look up, down, behind you, etc. Usually they pointed towards some hazard (like a big hole in the ground, or a dangerous ceiling above you). This one didn’t seem to actually pertain to anything behind me. It probably activates only at night, when there likely would have been a guy in a mask standing there.

And…a random chair stuck in the roof. So that’s nice.

Tuesday night I had a wonderful dinner with Mark and his wonderful family. Beforehand, he drove me by Waiverly, a very historic and proud part of the area. This was one of the last photos of my trip, taken of the community center (which was built to resemble Independence Hall). Although ruins are fun, living and active history is well worth a visit too.

I’ve come to really like Pennsylvania. Having just bought a new book on hidden and hard to reach ruin sites near NYC, I think a trip back to the region in Spring is in the works. With a number of incredible targets in mind, it should make for an exciting trip.

3 Responses to Of Heaven and Hell

  1. Suzan Eschborn August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    I always enjoy your photos, Jake. Very nice work! Anything about The Office show, in Scranton? We are big fans of that show. Going back to PA, I would suggest you go in early fall when the leaves change colors. Go Penn State!!!

  2. ania September 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    i love the deconstructed homes pictures. that would make for an amazing shoot with florals and very pretty/fem dresses. when i get married i think i want my wedding pics done here. so propose to me already. hopefully, see you soon. ps- i made one of the flower ones my desktop background (send me your bill). muah

  3. Best cousin L-MO September 29, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    cool stuff man, I dig it.

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