Whenever I think of creepy abandoned places the first things that jump to mind are old, haunted mansions and long-forgotten graveyards. But let us peel back the layers of time and tread carefully into the shadows of the past where history whispers tales of mystery, intrigue, and tragedy. From abandoned towns to forsaken prisons and forgotten asylums, these are the creepiest abandoned places in the United States.
Centralia Pennsylvania is a town from another era. It may have been abandoned for over 40 years, but as one of America’s most iconic ghost towns it’s powerful history still echoes in the minds of many. A small borough in Columbia County in Pennsylvania, Centralia was established in the late 1800s and was once a thriving coal mining community with over 2,000 residents. The large coal deposits underground played a big role in turning it into a bustling business by the turn of the last century.
But that all changed in 1962 when a fire ignited the underground coal mine, causing hazardous conditions and statewide panic. To this day no one really knows what started the fire, but there are claims that it was caused during an attempt to clean a landfill near the mine. A handful of firefighters, hired by the Centralia Borough Council, allegedly set the dump on fire as they had routinely done in previous years during landfill clean ups – except this time, an exposed seam of coal caught on fire, sparking an inferno in the coal mine.
At first the residents of Centralia were not concerned about the fire since it was confined to the underground tunnels in the coal mine. But soon, the situation began to escalate as deadly fumes of sulfurous gases and carbon monoxide emerged from the depths, suffocating the residents, and endangering their lives. The fire also changed the landscape around them forever. A massive crater tore through a major highway. With the ground shifting and weakening, sinkholes that were capable of swallowing animals and humans whole began to appear everywhere. 12-year-old Todd Domboski was walking across a neighbor’s backyard when the ground beneath his feet suddenly gave way and swallowed him up. Luckily, one of his cousins was there to pull him out to safety. When officials tested the plume of hot steam billowing from the sink hole, they discovered that it contained lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
The resulting statewide panic caused hundreds to evacuate Centralia en masse, eventually leading to its decline. What was once a thriving town with 7 churches, 5 hotels, 27 saloons, 2 theaters, a bank, a post office, 14 grocery stores, and a population of almost 3000 residents is now reduced to piles of rubble, abandoned buildings, empty streets, and a handful of residents. Centralia stands as a haunting reminder of a bygone era, a testament to its eerie past. But what is even most chilling is that even today, over 60 years later, the fire beneath the ground in Centralia is still burning.
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY PENNSYLVANIA
Talking about the creepiest abandoned places in the United States, I cannot not make mention of the Eastern State Penitentiary Pennsylvania. Located in Philadelphia, this former prison was built in 1829, and has been the home to some of the worst criminals known to mankind such as mobster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton, as well as numerous spies during World War I and World War II. The prison’s design, with its forbidding stone exterior, long, narrow corridors, and tiny isolated cells, was meant to inspire penitence in the prisoners.
Since the prisoners that got locked up in the Eastern State Penitentiary Pennsylvania were so violent, the staff used brutal tactics to maintain law and order. The inmates had their heads covered to prevent them from mentally mapping the layout of the prison. This also prevented face-to-face interaction, reducing the chances of both violence and conspiracies amongst the prisoners. Despite these extreme measures, in 1930, while the prison was being renovated, over 30 incomplete escape tunnels that prisoners had dug were discovered.
As the prisoners were kept in solitude in their cells for 23 hours a day, some of them would tap on drainage pipes and whisper to each other through vents in desperate need of human contact. The consequences were severe. Inmates who misbehaved were often subjected to the Mad Chair for punishment. They were strapped so tightly in this torture device that it would cut the blood circulation to their extremities. In extreme cases, some inmates had to have their arms and legs amputated after spending several days strapped in the Mad Chair.
Today, the prison is abandoned and decaying, but there are many secrets buried within the walls and rubble. If you dare to take one of the guided tours there, you can learn all about the prison’s dark history.
THE TRANS-ALLEGHENY LUNATIC ASYLUM
Finally on my rundown of the creepiest abandoned places in the United States is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia. This massive asylum was built in the 1800s to house the mentally ill. When it first opened its doors in 1863, it was intended to house 250 people so that patients could receive one-on-one care. But when the subject of mental illness became increasingly controversial, more and more people began to be admitted into the asylum, from those suffering from substance abuse to soldiers with PTSD, and patients diagnosed with hysteria and even non-psychological conditions like asthma. It was not uncommon for husbands to have their wives committed to the asylum for alleged menstrual derangement and other imaginary female ailments. Over the years, the asylum became so crowded that the inundated staff began to subject the vulnerable patients to inhumane treatment.
The problem of over crowdedness in the asylum was solved by cramming several patients into a cell that was designed for only one person. Patients with violent tendencies were locked up in cages as a safety precaution and then shoved into the overcrowded cells with the other patients. Not only was there a lack of space in these cells, but they also lacked proper sanitation and had little air supply. In an atmosphere that evoked oppression and intimidation rather than healing, staff attempted extreme treatments on patients such as ice baths and electroshock therapy while denying them vital healthcare for rehabilitation.
As horrific as all this was, the conditions and ill-treatment at Trans-Allegheny got worse. Its darkest chapter happened in the 1950s when it became the headquarters for the West Virginia Lobotomy Project led by Dr. Walter Freeman. A lobotomy is a form of brain surgery that was practiced as early as the 1930s to treat conditions like Schizophrenia, manic depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Doctors who performed this procedure used a chisel-like surgical instrument to burrow into the patient’s skull through the eye socket. Striking the chisel with a hammer, they would then remove some brain tissue to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and the thalamus, which is part of the grey matter that plays many essential roles in human physiology. Thus Dr. Freeman went about hacking the brains of the patients at Trans-Allegheny. It is alleged that some of these patients were left permanently damaged cognitively and physically.
It’s just as well that the asylum closed its doors for good in 1994. Now that it has been designated as a national historic site, you can take a trip and visit the asylum during its tour season. But beware, the Trans-Allegheny may be haunted. Many visitors claimed to have encountered the ghosts of the countless souls that met a horrific end inside the asylum’s walls.
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