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.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MODE MAGAZINE IN MARCH, 1998.
PLEASE CHECK DESTINATIONS BEFORE TRAVELING
THINGS TO DO
Pioneer Coal Mine
& Anthracite Coal Museum
19th and Oak Streets, Ashland
Tours April through November
Curious Goods Antiques
556 N. Centre Street, Pottsville
5th and Mahantongo Streets, Pottsville
Tours Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday tours June — August and Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
Just outside Pine Grove
Take 895 East from Pine Grove and get on Route 501. Follow 3 miles up the mountain and look for a parking lot on the left, cross the road and get on the trail. A five-minute walk reveals a great view of Berks County
THINGS TO BRING
• 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 81and 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
630 South Hoffman Boulevard
A Route 61 institution, serves dinner car-side or in the diner. Danny’s makes their own hot sauce, and one local resident recommends the double cheeseburger with everything, fries and an extra-thick chocolate shake.
1120 Center Street, Ashland
Features some great homestyle cooking and seems to be really popular with the area senior citizens. A bonus is a live organist every Saturday night that packs the house.
The Black Diamond Bar •717-645-8494
209 Main Street, Frackville
Boasts the best wings in northern Schuylkill County. Also, as with many bars in this area, you can always find some very cheap beer (although this is not recommended on road trips).
Granny’s • 717-874-0408
115 West Coal Street
Dutch Kitchen • 717-874-3265
433 South Lehigh Avenue
Both specialize in home-style meals and both are located on the edge of Frackville in the shadow of Route 81. If you are looking for good stick-to-your-ribs meals, either of these restaurants will easily foot the bill.
The Pottsville Diner • 717-628-5152
Route 61 South
On the corner of 4th and Market Streets, you will spot a sign that simply says Diner. As with most diners, this place serves up incredible hamburgers in record time. Also be sure to check out the very cool photos at the cash register of the day JFK came to town while running for President.
Red Lion Cafe • 717-345-8074
Just outside of Pine Grove on Route 443. Offers great pizza, huge dinners at low prices and incredible desserts.
Pine Grove natives say: don’t miss it.
Buddy’s Log Cabin • 717-345-8253
If it’s breakfast on your mind, this is the place to go. On Route 125 outside of Pine Grove. The bottom line here is down-home food and quantities that have been known to make adults explode. An added bonus is the incredible taxidermy collection on the walls.
Originally Published in MODE Magazine in March, 1998.