Gregg D. Merksamer
While surfacing the Turnpike went slowly at first, with only 13 miles of highway laid in 1939 and another 17 miles during the damp spring of 1940, 50 paving units were soon laying up to three-and-a-half miles of concrete daily. Military convoys, some of them using all four lanes to travel in one direction, got to use the partially-finished Turnpike by the summer, and in early August, 1940 (the same month that the Turnpike Commission assembled a 93-car caravan filled with Washington V.I.P.s for a high-speed tour and a luncheon at the flagship Midway service plaza) the 108th Field Artillery of the Pennsylvania National Guard confirmed the road’s strategic value by speeding down from Fort Indiantown Gap to defend the town of Bedford from a fictional attack. As for the public opening, both a July 4th and a Labor Day ribbon-cutting ceremony that were supposed to be attended by President Roosevelt came and went, and as the Pennsylvania governorship had passed to the Republicans no one in Harrisburg wanted to see the Turnpike’s opening turn into a rally for the Democrats. Instead, providing less than twelve hours’ notice over the radio, the Commission announced that the Turnpike would open at a minute past midnight on Tuesday, October 1st. Motorists eager to be among the first to try the innovative new road, about half of which came from out-of-state, began lining up six hours beforehand. The first man through the eastern terminus at Carlisle was Homer Romberger, a local feed and tallow dealer who had witnessed the Eberly Farm groundbreaking 23 months and five days earlier, while the first car past the westernmost tollbooth at Irwin belonged to Carl Boe of McKeesport; right after collecting his yellow ticket, he pulled over and gave Greensburg residents Dick Gangle and Frank Lorey the distinct honor of being the first hitchhikers on the Turnpike.
Those who were convinced that the collection of tolls (initially set for passenger cars at $1.50 for the full 160 miles and $2.25 for a round trip, basically one cent a mile and not increased to 1.9 cents a mile until 1969) would guarantee the Turnpike’s failure had not taken into account the considerable savings the new road’s lower grades afforded heavy truck traffic (their rates ranged from from $3 to $10 depending on weight), which ultimately accounted for two-thirds of all Turnpike toll receipts. The three percent maximum grade resulting from the use of 6.7 miles of tunnels saved trucks over 9,000 feet of vertical climb as compared to U.S. 30, and a series of truck tests conducted in the late 1940s over parallel 25-mile sections of the Turnpike and the Lincoln Highway concretely demonstrated the resulting savings in time and fuel. It took a truck with a gross weight of 50,000 pounds 1 hour and 33 minutes and 9.8 gallons of fuel to negotiate the Lincoln Highway test route, compared to only 41 minutes and 6.3 gallons of fuel for the equivalent stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The savings were even greater for a truck with a 139,000-pound gross weight; this vehicle consumed only 10.6 gallons of fuel on the Turnpike compared to 23.8 for the Lincoln Highway, and took 44 minutes to travel the test distance of the new route versus 2 hours and 6 minutes for the old. The Turnpike also shortened Greyhound’s Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg bus schedule from nine hours using U.S. 22 to five-and-a-quarter hours including a rest stop at Bedford.
Even though a 1939 report from the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads entitled “Toll Roads and Free Roads” had estimated that the Pennsylvania Turnpike would attract only 715 vehicles a day, 10,000 vehicles per day (nearly triple the Commission’s own pre-opening estimate of 3,500 per day) went through the gates during the first two weeks and, during the first Sunday that the Turnpike was open on October 6th, an even-more-astounding 27,000 vehicles sampled the roadway and traffic jams up to six miles long built up at the exits! While the wartime imposition of gasoline rationing and a system-wide 35 mph speed limit saw Turnpike traffic fall from 2.1 million passenger cars during the first full year of operation in 1941 to 581,000 in 1943, total vehicle volume quickly rebounded to 2.4 million vehicles in 1946 and subsequently exploded to 3.8 million vehicles in 1949, five million in 1951 and 22.7 million in 1957. Much of this increase could be credited to the opening of a 100-mile-long Eastern Extension from Harrisburg to Valley Forge (outside Philadelphia) on November 20th, 1950 and a 67-mile-long Western Extension to the Ohio state line on December 26th, 1951. This was followed by a 1954 extension from Valley Forge to Bristol on the Delaware River which was connected to the New Jersey Turnpike via a 6,571-foot-long bridge as of May 23rd, 1956, making it possible to drive all the way from Maine to Indiana without encountering a single stop light, cross street or grade crossing. The Turnpike’s overall length rose again to 470 miles after a 110-mile-long Northeast Extension between Philadelphia and Scranton (featuring a 4,461-foot Lehigh tunnel through the mountains above Allentown) opened to traffic on November 7th, 1957, and reached its current 514 miles after a bypass around Greensburg and a series of “Western Links” to Interstate 70 and Morgantown, WV were erected in the 1990s.
And as its annual traffic volume exploded exponentially from the 1.3 million vehicles estimated at the 1940 opening to 160.3 million vehicles (379,592 cars and 58,327 commercial vehicles per day) in 2000, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the sixteen state toll highways patterned after it served as proving grounds for safety theories that would be put into practice on the Federally-funded Interstate Highway System started in 1956. For example, “crossover” accidents attributed the Turnpike’s relatively narrow median prompted later highway builders to keep the opposing roadways far apart, and it was also learned that gentle curves and plantings placed along the right-of-way could alleviate the “highway hypnosis” and unintentional speeding induced by long stretches of straight pavement. The Turnpike’s biggest bottleneck involved the seven two-lane tunnels carrying traffic in both directions on the original Carlisle-to-Irwin section, rectified by a $100 million modernization program during the 1960s where the Laurel Hill, Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels were replaced with bypasses while Allegheny, Tuscarora, Kittatinny and Blue Mountain received companion tunnels with more easily-cleaned tile walls and graduated fluorescent lighting (with traffic temporarily routed through the new tunnels, the originals were subsequently upgraded to this specification). The November, 1991 completion of a second Lehigh tunnel on the Northeast Extension, featuring the first U.S. highway use of the “New Austrian Tunnel Method” where fast-hardening concrete is shot into the freshly-cut bore to eliminate the need for a steel superstructure, eliminated the last stretch of two lane highway on the Turnpike.
Given that 13.5 miles of original Turnpike were also abandoned when the 3,532-foot Ray’s Hill and 6,782-foot Sideling Hill tunnels were bypassed on November 26th, 1968, I concluded that they would not be very difficult to locate and I set out to find them during an April, 1987 visit to western Pennsylvania. Not long after exiting the Breezewood Interchange, I came across the owner of a 1964 Ford Galaxie named Gary Conkin who, in an incredible coincidence, was a railroad buff from Curwensville, PA who was searching for the very same tunnels on the very same day! After an hour’s exploration of the dirt roads north of U.S. 30, our two-car convoy came upon an overpass that obviously belonged to the abandoned Turnpike section. Climbing the embankment, we were stunned to find four lanes of pavement that, lined by weeds and stripped of their signs and light poles, looked like they had been abandoned for a thousand years. After about a mile’s walk east we arrived at the Sideling Hill tunnel and were surprised and thrilled to find that we could walk inside, proceeding about a half-mile before the portal shrunk to a pinhole we lost our nerve; the echo was the clearest and most powerful I have ever experienced, almost like we were talking to each other inside a bell.
Having used the abandoned section for about a decade as a Safety Testing and Research (STAR) facility for evaluating rumble strips, reflector designs and pavement markings, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission recently announced that it was selling both tunnels and eight-and-half-miles of roadway to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy for $1; the organization plans to turn the route into a bike path, with the opening tentatively scheduled to take place next spring. As for other early Turnpike artifacts, the Smithsonian Institute received the last 1940-style hexagon toll booth when it was decommissioned on September 13th, 1983 (it is currently dismantled and in storage, however) and the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society has another, from the Fort Littleton Interchange, on display at its grounds near Tarentum, PA.