This post is part of a larger series on the online history of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. A previous post covered its physical history and precarious future, as the tunnel falls into disrepair here. Another reports on the online history of the tunnels, as the pages that first shared information on the place become obsolete and also fall into disrepair, found here. This piece discusses the failure of the Abandoned Turnpike’s restoration efforts and the events surrounding it: technological, economic, and political– including the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
THE INTERNET ENTERS ADOLESCENCE
The late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a time of technological upheaval. An information revolution and shift to a service oriented economy had been predicted as early as 1980; the internet had been around for a while, but retained a sense of mystery. The information revolution was well upon us and our media reflected the anxieties and exaltation inherent to it. For example, a 1994 episode of the children’s show Ghost Writer features a 13 year old Julia Styles posturing to the other characters “Have you ever seen the New Wave? Cyber-punk? I don’t think so.” It was a formative experience for fledgling “console cowboys” the world over.
xkcd makes hearts at julia stiles
Hacker Kevin Mitnick faced a high-profile arrest and controversial imprisonment in 1995. His 2002 book relates that he obtained passwords through “social engineering” rather than software or other technological devices. The development of the “Free Kevin” movement is covered in the sympathetic 2001 documentary Freedom Downtime, starring Skeet Ulrich. Microsoft AntiTrust Case in 2001 forced Microsoft to remove an integrated browser from its software and allow competition from available stand-alone internet packages. This was not altogether a win for consumers, as the software of the time was cumbersome to download and install. The Supreme Court’s ruling remains controversial, and is taught in business schools as a case study.
THE NATION IS UPTURNED
The Attacks on the World Trade Center devastated the country, closing the New York Stock Exchange for two days. A third plane was crashed into a field in nearby Shanksville, Pennsylvania during that series of attacks. On my trip to Abandoned Turnpike, I detoured a bit to visit the monument. In 2009, it was modest but moving– a chain link fence with letters and pictures hung to it, with toys and personal affects placed below. In 2011, the park service placed a more permanent a visitors center and marble wall of names there, now the Flight 93 National Memorial.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE INTERNET
In 1996 the Communications Decency Act attempted to ban or limit access to “indecent” material on the internet. The act was quickly found unconstitutional, but of it was born Rotten.com, one of a handful of early shock-sites filled with photos of decapitations, horrible diseases, and more. One personal account of trawling the site,
The Legacy of Rotten.com relates the sick anticipation of waiting for photos of bodies in dumpsters to load over a dial-up connection. It was either on rotten.com or another similar website that I saw the earliest address to online trolling. A couple was scrolling through the dismemberments and whatnot and saw a picture of a baby and wanted that image removed, as they had just lost a baby in their family, “Oh this one bothers you?” the webmaster replied, “It was just fine while you were laughing at other people’s misery.” The picture remained.
In the anonymous landscape of the internet, trolling has developed into an art form. Biases and sensationalism in the media become caricatures of themselves. The New Republic elaborates on this point with a quote from “philosopher and troll Slavoj Zizek” in the article, Who Are the Trolls?. One book, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” explores the privilege inherent to trolling. Author Whitney Phillips explains, “It’s not that they’re laughing necessarily at other people’s pain. They’re in a privileged position where they don’t need to think about it.”
Conspiracy theories regarding the World Trade Tower attacks emerged almost immediately, and are copious enough to have earned their own Wikipedia page. “False Flag” accusations abounded, but the term “crisis actor” did not come into use until about 2007, as indicated by google trends. Similar explanatory fictions for the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Orlando nightclub shooting, and the Sandy Hook school shooting. Lenny Pozner had been an avid conspiracy theorist prior to losing his son in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. He describes his experience with other conspiracy theorists, and the resistance he encountered when attempting to convince ringleader Wolfgang Halbig that his son had even existed. In an interview this year, he describes being told to exhume his son’s body if he wanted to be taken seriously.
In the months following the World Trade Center attacks, Rotten.com becomes an unlikely hotbed of counter-conspiracy activity, as conspiracy theorists flock to the macabre “alt news” outlet. Also available are gruesome accidents, suicides, BDSM fatalities, and (for a moment) the infamous “Swan Dive” photo.
TURNPIKE PLANS COLLAPSE
In 2001, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission sold the property to a conservation group for the price of one dollar. Since then, it has become a popular tourist destination for hikers, bicyclists, and urban explorers. Coverage of the event was distinctly local, and focused on transitioning the roadway and tunnels into a recreational area.
The site was turned over to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy, which also manages the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. In turn, the conservancyand in 2001 and turnpike was opened to bicyclists.
Newspaper archives seem to be the most brittle of all the sources, so I have captured some early articles for safekeeping in the narrative.
Post-Gazette archives, Nov 11, 2001. Reporting on the acquisition of the turnpike by the Conservancy.
A quote from the president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance
A mention of a report from four years prior that the roadway is still in good shape for driving.
“The curious, who share photos, directions, and impressions of the road on the Internet…”
Murray Schrotenboer, a local bike enthusiast, expressed his optimism in this 2001 article on the tunnels. “I thought, wow, that was the most bizarre and amazing thing I’d ever done,” he said of his ride through the Sideling HIll Tunnel. The author projected the turnpike would be opened to cyclists in a year or two; Branden Deihl who is now Grant and Project Consultant for the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, declined to guess at a completion date.
Tunnel Vision, an article written in 2015 for a regional newspaper, relates the ensuing heartbreak as the conservation project “imploded”. A feasibility analysis conducted by Gannett Fleming in 2005 produced a “Master Plan and Adaptive Re-Use Study” and with projected cost of $3.5 million to repair the tunnels. Another source suggests budget cuts have left the SAC a skeleton. Whatever the cause, at time of writing, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy is “essentially dead” and the website listed on Pennsylvania Land Trust Association index is a dead link. The conservancy had or has leased the land to Pike to Bike for use as a trail, Murray Schrotenboer, Pike2Bike Chairman, explains “SACs has kind of run out of money, run out of steam.”
The early 2000’s saw a recession as the dot com bubble popped. The Federal Reserve increased interest rates to protect against an overinflated stock market, and venture capital afforded to start ups like Pike 2 Bike were curtailed dramatically. The region surrounding the turnpike is decided agricultural, but it has not been immune to the effects of the downturn.
As the center of the Rust Belt, Pennsylvania in particular has suffered economic hardships as the United States shifts from a production economy to a New Economy, capitalizing on services like the tourism the Abandoned Turnpike’s renovations were intended to attract.
The turnpike changed hands at roughly the same time as the stock market crash 2002. This crash, sometimes called a “correction” or “deflationary episode” following a long period of relatively high stock valuations, had precedent in a global economic downturn beginning in Asia in 1997. The burst of the “dot com bubble” is widely believed to be a contributing factor to the early 2000’s recession in the United States.
In 2003 Congress passes anti-spam email legislation and portions of the turnpike are used for convoy training leading up to the Iraq War. A local paper describes the exercises here, and the pink paintballs used instead of bullets. It is a great article about ambushes and anti-ambush tactics– “Vehicles should be spaced about 25 yards apart. If the spacing is greater, the convoy commander can lose control over the convoy. If the spacing is closer, vehicles could get bunched up in an ambush.”
Following halted renovation efforts and use as a training ground, the tunnels lie in disrepair. Public interest endures, however, and non-commercial use continues. Jeffrey Kitso led a group through the tunnels in 2004, a venture described in the recently published post A Visit to Abandoned Pennsylvania. Kitsko has subsequently published several reports on its economic potential in a variety of formats. One such is found in After the Factory: Reinventing America’s Industrial Small Cities; the book 2010 book outlines the economic situation of the area, and gives context to the attempts to revitalize the turnpike.