The Strange Story of Centralia

PA Route 61

I’ve driven through different parts of Pennsylvania over the years but never to Centralia. That might be because Centralia is not easy to find, by road or by map.

Centralia was a small coal mining town in the Appalachian mountain area of Pennsylvania, dating from 1866. With coal mining at its peak in the 1890’s the population reached 2,800 but subsided after that to a more consistent 2,000, where it stayed for quite a while. The real decline though, started later in the twentieth century.

Centralia PA
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church overlooking the remains of Centralia PA

In 1962 there was a fire at the local landfill that changed the whole future of the town. I’ve read several explanations but the most popular seems to be that the fire department deliberately set the fire to clean up the landfill, which was a common practice. However, the landfill was on top of some mine shafts and not only was the fire not extinguished, it actually spread into the mine shafts where it was impossible to reach. The result was that it continued to spread throughout mines, and worked its way beneath the town itself.

In the 1980’s there were clear signs that carbon monoxide from the fire in the mines was having an effect on people’s health and there was significant subsidence going on. This set off the real demise of the town as people moved out (taking buyouts) and by the nineties, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used “eminent domain” to take control of the town and move out the rest of the residents. There are still a few people left as they refused to move but there’s very little left of the town. The roads remain, a couple of well-cared-for graveyards, and a white church sitting radiantly on a hill surrounded by trees. Buildings have been demolished and a more natural habitat has grown up in their place.

PA Route 61
The abandoned section of PA Route 61, now covered in graffiti and providing a playground for locals with their 4x4s

One road that attracts some attention is the abandoned section of PA highway 61 (the road was rerouted) which has severe subsidence and can often be seen with smoke from the underground fire making its way up through the broken surface. Combined with all the colourful graffiti that covers it, it can be quite a strange sight. A strange sight to match a strange story. And still the fire burns on.

Centralia PA
Graffiti-covered guard rail along the abandoned section of PA Route 61 in Centralia

You can find more info about Centralia at,_Pennsylvania

Eastern State Penitentiary

Image of cell block at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is an uneasy sight when you first approach it. Its thick, high grey stone walls and medieval fortress look don’t betray the fact that it was built to keep people in, rather than out.

I visited Eastern State Penitentiary while travelling around Pennsylvania and making a stop in the lovely city of Philadelphia. Standing in the popular Fairmount area of the city it seems like an odd place to have a prison, but there it is, looming eerily since it was first opened in 1829.


Eastern State Penitentiary
The upper balcony along one side of a cell block.

ESP was the first prison of its kind, bringing in a new approach in dealing with prisoners. Moving away from the old prison system where men, women and children were all thrown in together and left to their own devices, this new system focused on rehabilitation through isolation and penitence. While prisoners had relative luxury (flush toilet, central heating, running water, and even their own small exercise yard) they were locked in their own cell alone, with only a bible to read, no interaction with others and even having a hood placed over their head on the occasions when they were allowed our of their cell. The idea was that they would have time to think about their crimes and how bad they were, leading to penitence. Hence the coining of the term penitentiary. Of course now, this seems like a form of severe deprivation, if not torture, but at that time, this Quaker inspired system seemed quite radical and forward thinking.


Eastern State Penitentiary
Looking from one cell across to another. Note how small the doorways are.


The actual building of Eastern State Penitentiary, with its cell blocks radiating from a central observation area, has served as a model for hundreds of other prisons all around the world including South America, Europe and Asia.


With additions to the building and changes to the way prisoners were treated over the years, ESP was finally closed in 1971. ESP is now in a derelict state, but serving as a museum. You can wander around and see the cells, originally with small, secure doors, and the “Eye of God’ skylights in the original cells. There’s even an opportunity to see the rumoured luxury of Al Capone’s cell!


If you’re interested in finding out more about Eastern State Penitentiary, you can go to



Blue Mosque

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Istanbul while I was on a trip to Turkey. Often referred to as the Gateway to Asia, at least if you’re coming from the west (otherwise, the Gateway to Europe!), Istanbul straddles the border of the two continents. The Bosphorus provides the natural divide and the bridges across connect the two.

Blue Mosque
A view of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque from a rooftop patio as the sun goes down

An ancient city that’s had a few names before Istanbul (Constantinople, Byzantium), and been at the centre of a few empires, this is a city with tons of things for its millions of visitors to explore.


Key attractions include the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. This is an outstanding example of classical architecture that combines Islamic and Byzantine Christian features, among others. Apart from this, you can also find the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace just steps away. So you can cover a lot of ground, so to speak, in this one small area. Well worth it.


For a taste of something different, just a short walk away is the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the oldest and biggest covered markets in the world with around 4,000 shops spread over sixty one streets. Shoppers paradise! You’ll not see many markets like that. Just a walk through is an experience in itself, again because of the fantastic architecture, and the busy atmosphere. And if you’re wanting to buy, you can get all sorts of things – clothes, accessories, sweets, furniture, carpets – and they’re keen to make a sale. The whole process of haggling (which is pretty much mandatory) is an entertainment in itself, though it can sometimes be hard to work out how much of a bargain you actually get in the end, assuming you buy something.


And then of course, off-the-beaten track of the main attractions are plenty of back streets with small comfortable hotels (I stayed at the Asmali Hotel), restaurants with great food and atmosphere, street-side and rooftop patios, and great views. The locals are great to talk with and really helpful.

One of the many rooftop patios, looking out over the Sea of Marmara at sunset

There’s no doubt that businesses in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey are hurting right now, and that’s unfortunate. It’s a great place to be, and in terms of security, barring the south-east of the country, I would feel no more at risk than in any other large city, in fact, maybe less so.

Africville – A Story of Loss

Africville and Mackay Bridge

I first heard of Africville while travelling through Nova Scotia and making the inevitable stop in the beautiful city of Halifax. The Provincial capital, Halifax dates back to 1749 and is a city with lots of character and history. There are great visual landmarks like Citadel Hill that has housed several forts over the years, and looks down protectively over Halifax Harbour, troops and cannons at the ready. There are also the remarkable stories like the Halifax Explosion in 1917, an unfortunate event to put the city on the map.

Africville Memorial
Memorial at Seaview Memorial Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I’d heard many things about Halifax, however, I hadn’t heard about Africville, which I came across when I explored the city waterfront. Down below the A. Murray Mackay Bridge, there’s a park with a plaque, a monument, a church and lovely view of the harbour.

This is Seaview Memorial Park, created to commemorate the settlement. Originally known as the Campbell Road Settlement, depending on what you read, it dates from around 1748. It was a small settlement on the southern shore of the Bedford Basin that housed mainly black Nova Scotians.

Africville - Seaview African United Baptist Church
The focal point of the community of Africville, Halifax NS

When the original Seaview African United Baptist Church was built in 1849 it was the focal point of the community of 80 residents and the surrounding area. By 1917 the Africville population peaked at around 400 people.

Africville Protest
Ongoing protest at the treatment and removal of the Africville settlement and community

The people of Africville were part of a community that struggled with a lot of hardship and prejudice throughout its existence and this is highlighted in the disgraceful way the community was eradicated between 1964–67. Houses were bulldozed as each family was moved out, the church was demolished in the middle of the night and the city used dump trucks to move people and their belongings from the site.

Africville - Seaview Memorial Park
A man sitting in Seaview Memorial Park watching the sunset

In 2010 the city issued the Africville Apology, provided compensation and renamed the Seaview Memorial Park as Africville Park, in commemoration. A replica of the Seaview African United Baptist Church was built in 2011 and this now houses the Africville museum.

East Coast Provinces – The Joy of Canada

Image of Murray Harbour PEI, as the sun goes down

Travelling around Canada’s East Coast Provinces – or Atlantic Provinces – is always touted is a must-do for tourists and residents at some point in their lives. The landscape, the history, food and the friendly people are the highlights that entice many people there. The East Coast Provinces include Newfoundland and Labrador Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.


After living in Toronto for many years I made my first trip “out east” towards the end of last summer. The furthest I’d been in that direction until then was Quebec City so I was definitely venturing much further afield this time. It was still a great opportunity to see some of Quebec again – staying in Trois-Rivieres on the way out and Quebec City on the way back – but the real focus (no pun intended!) was on what was to be seen and experienced in New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia. Of course, you can’t cover everything in one trip to Canada’s east coast (well, unless you take a year or two…), so we had to be ruthless in cutting things out to make the most of the few weeks we could dedicate to it. In particular, Newfoundland will be another day.

East Coast Bay of Fundy
Looking out at the Bay of Fundy from Hopewell Rocks

I won’t go into a lot of details here but can say that it was all well worth it. Driving to stay in Fredericton we went through one of the most astounding storms I’ve ever seen, when we had hardly any visibility for 30 minutes. Solid black tumultuous clouds and tons of heavy rain cascading down on us. There had to be light somewhere at the end of that tunnel! Through Moncton and down to Hopewell Rocks at the north east end of the Bay of Fundy where the water is an enticing chocolate brown because of the tholeiitic basalt deposits there, and we were able to walk on the beach at low tide. The Bay of Fundy at Hopewell Rocks has the highest tidal range in the world so you have to pay attention to the access times to make sure you don’t get trapped!


East Coast Fields of PEI
Farmland in Prince Edward Island

On to the beautiful island of PEI with its vibrantly coloured farmlands, via Confederation Bridge. An excellent place to travel to, and more than one or two lighthouses to be seen. After travelling from Cavendish down to Charlottetown we headed on to Murray Harbour on the south-east coast, on the way discovering one of PEIs rare wineries. Rossignol Estate Winery sits comfortably on the south coast with a fantastic view of the Northumberland Strait. You can find more info about this at


A great Ferry ride back to Nova Scotia and on to a base in Sydney for various treks, miners museum at Glace Bay then on to Halifax for a few days. Halifax was a great base for reaching different places including Lunenburg and Peggy’s Cove, but not Liverpool this time (I’m from Liverpool in the UK). One of the most striking things in Halifax itself was the Seaview Memorial commemorating the African Canadian settlement of Africville, which was demolished in the 1960’s as part of an urban renewal initiative.


East Coast at Peggy's Cove
Lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia

Travelling back up from there we took a circuitous route stopping at Tatamagouche where we came across the small town’s own brewing company sitting with open shop front on the main street, then on to Miramichi in New Brunswick before heading back to Quebec.


Packed a lot in there, I think!

Powwow Days

Traditional Fancy Shawl Dancer

I had the joy of visiting the Grand River Powwow last weekend and what a great event it was! Its a few years since I’ve been to a Powwow but I was quickly reminded of what a colourful and vibrant experience it is.

Male Fancy Dancer at Powwow
A male Fancy Dancer dancing in full costume

Billed as the Champion of Champions Powwow this is an aboriginal multicultural event organized by volunteers from the Six Nations of the Grand River and it takes place on the Six Nations Territory near Brantford, Ontario. Since its original meeting of just four small families many years ago this annual event has grown to attract thousands of visitors each year. Over a hot July weekend the many competitors and vendors are able to highlight traditional and modern arts, dance and music.

We went to the powwow on Sunday afternoon and one of my first thoughts was to wonder how we were going to survive the searing heat but as I glanced around I wondered more about the competitors in full regalia and ready to dance the afternoon away. They deserve a prize just for being there!

With dance, competitions going on throughout the afternoon there was plenty to see and hear, though just looking at the costumes was an event in itself. The range of designs and colours were amazing. I’ve included some shots of just a few people here but really the variety and complexity was staggering.

Fancy Shawl Dance at Powwow
Woman in traditional clothing participating in a Fancy Dance


Certain costumes are meant for certain dances. An example would be the jingle dance where women wear dresses decorated with metal cones that jingle as the women perform a healing dance. There’s also the fancy shawl dance where the shawl gives an impression of colourful butterflies in flight and it can be quite graceful. Then there’s the men’s fancy dance, based on the war dance, and which is a fast energetic dance performed in elaborate costumes that feature large feather bustles, beading, bells and more. While dancing fast they also have to anticipate the final beat of the music and come to a dead stop. I saw it happen and was quite impressed with their quick reaction. You can see these dances at any powwow across the continent.

Aboriginal Headdress
A man wearing a traditional aboriginal headdress

Enjoy the pictures and if you get a chance, try to attend a powwow. You’ll get a great impression and some understanding of aboriginal cultures, and of course, a wonderful welcome. I’ve pasted a few links below where you can find little more powwow info.