Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Ghost Town of the Apocalypse - Celestia, Pa

Deep in the woods of Sullivan County, in that region of Pennsylvania known as the Endless Mountains, lay the ruins of one religious group's belief in an apocalypse that never came to pass.  The town was the brainchild of Peter Edward Armstrong of Philadelphia, who in 1850, began purchasing the land that was to become the town of Celestia, eventually amassing over 600 acres.  Armstrong divided the land into lots measuring 20 by 100 feet, and by 1853 sold over 300 such lots for $10 each to people who thought the end of the world was near, and that it was vitally necessary to live in that specific community.

Prior to founding Celestia, Armstrong was a Millerite, a believer in the prophetic teachings of William Miller of New York.  Primary among Miller's teachings was his Biblical calculation of the exact day of the Second Coming of the Messiah, October 22, 1844.  Peter Armstrong was among over 500,000 Millerites waiting to be ascended into Heaven just prior to a cleansing of the Earth by fire, but on the prescribed day absolutely nothing happened.  This lack of supernatural occurrences in 1844 became known as the "Great Disappointment," and resulted in many Millerites losing faith and leaving the movement.  Peter Armstrong's faith was unfazed, however, and he soon developed an explanation of why William Miller's prediction didn't appear to happen.

Armstrong believed that something did happen on the day of the Millerite prediction, but that it was invisible to mortal men.  Rather than being the day of the Apocalypse, Armstrong theorized that October 22, 1844 was instead the day that the Lord had cleansed Heaven in preparation of receiving the faithful at a later date.  Armstrong further interpreted scripture to indicate that the Messiah would only return after the faithful had created a communistic society of believers ruled by the Bible, and had constructed a physical temple atop a mountain.  A passage from the Book of Issiah, "in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord," seemed to confirm that the sparsely populated area of the state would be an ideal spot.

The town took shape quickly, and featured numerous houses, a general store, a sawmill, a brick manufactory, and a meeting house where religious services were held.  It was a short time, however, before the American Civil War would cause some disturbance in Celestia. When one faithful resident received a draft notice to report for duty in the Union Army, the town successfully persuaded President Lincoln to exempt, on religious grounds, all residents of the town from military service.  Armstrong also petitioned the State Legislature to recognize the members of his religious community as "peaceable aliens and wilderness exiles from the rest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."  Going perhaps too far in his efforts to distinguish Celestia from other towns, Armstrong recorded a deed transferring the title to the entire town to "Almighty God, and to His heirs in Jesus Messiah for their proper use and behoof forever."

With that, Celestia was thought to be successfully secured from the intrusions of the government and from the effects of the Civil War, which residents thought to be the Battle of Armageddon which scripture details as occurring at the end of time.  Armstrong probably thought his salvation was secure, so long as his community was constituted of individuals who were faithful and acceptable to God.  Celestia was soon infiltrated, however, by families and individuals whose motivations were more secular that spiritual.  People looking to escape the military draft, as well as those looking for a free ride in a communistic society descended on the town, and Armstrong was determined to do something to keep his town pure.

In 1872 Armstrong founded the town of Glen Sharon one mile south of Sonestown.  Glen Sharon was to be the town in which potential members were to be tested and observed prior to their admittance into the town of Celestia.  Despite his efforts to keep belief high in Celestia, townspeople began to lose faith, and the population eventually began to dwindle.

By 1876 the authorities of Sullivan County demanded that unpaid property taxes for the town be paid.  Being unamused by the deed to the land being in God's name, the tax collectors demanded the money from Armstrong himself, as the deity's agent on Earth.  The county eventually sold the town at a tax sale, and it was purchased by one of Armstrong's sons.  While life in the town wasn't altered by the change in ownership, it was one more thing to test the faith of the townsfolk.

By the time of Peter Armstrong's death in 1887, only a handful of residents remained.  In just a few years time, the unyielding forests of northern Pennsylvania would once again take Celestia.  The world was still here, but the eternal city of Celestia, once owned by God Himself, was gone forever.

According to the book, "Pennsylvania Ghost Towns" by Susan Hutchinson Tassin, some foundations and the remains of a road can still be seen on the site.  For directions and advice on visiting the town, contact the Sullivan County Historical Society in Laporte, Pa.


  1. Wow, I thought only us in the Southwest had ghost towns. Very cool.

  2. Just came across this. Very interesting. New Jersey's Pine Barrens has a ton of "lost towns", some say more than in the old west. I produced a documentary on it. Worked in Scranton PA in the 80's will have to check this out on one of my trips back up that way.