In 2009 I spent a night camping on the abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and shared my experience in a meandering, informal post that I had a ton of fun putting together. That entry quickly became the most-visited post on this site; early visitors sought out directions and photos (blurry as they were). Since then– other sources have come to perform that function better: more efficiently, more completely, and with more current information. Please see here, here, or here for directions, and look in on the Facebook page devoted to the abandoned turnpike if you are planning a trip.
Today the tunnels are in a precarious situation– caught between conservation efforts and financial realities, and merit more than the casual interest of road trippers. Clearly, there is still a lot to say about the turnpike, so I have divided my original post into a three-part series. This entry will give some history and context, the second will report on the online history of the turnpike, and the last will be an update to the post about my trip there.
THE HISTORY OF THE TURNPIKE:
Before the asphalt was even poured, the turnpike was born of abandonment. The expressway runs through the tunnels bored for the never-completed South Pennsylvania Railroad, part of Vanderbilt’s turf war with the major rail company presiding over the area. His bid for dominance failed, and the costly tunnels were never used. Twenty six men died during the astronomically expensive endeavor and the project became known as “Vanderbilt’s Folly.” The suggestion to use the tunnels for the turnpike came at the dawn of the age of the automobile, from a representative of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association and a member of the state planning commission– reportedly as a joke. The idea stuck, and after some investigating, engineers selected seven tunnels for completion. One of the nine unfinished train tunnels was declared unsound– this little known and never-used excavation sits to the side of one of the better known tunnels.
Construction for the turnpike began during the Great Depression, and funding sources included several New Deal programs including: the Works Progress Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Public Works Administration. Excavating the tunnels was arduous and full of danger. Mining exposed a sand-seam that flooded the tunnel, there was a freak snow-storm in June, and Laurel Hill collapsed, killing several men. William Leach, a 33 year old man who was working in the tunnel, was caught by the arm during the cave in, and found dangling five feet off the ground. An ambulance carrying a doctor arrived to the tunnels from a hospital some 15 miles away. The doctor put on a head lamp, crawled into the rubble, and freed Leach by amputating his arm. Despite these heroics, Leach died en route to the Catholic hospital and last rites were performed by the side of the road. The St. Petersburg Times interviewed a source who chose to remain anonymous who blamed the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission for “haggling” over the type of reinforcement used.
Tragedy and bad luck notwithstanding, after a mere year of work through a torturous winter, the turnpike opened to vehicles in 1940 with a midnight celebration. Motorists bought tickets and waited days to help inaugurate the turnpike. Visitors competed to drive first on this new sort of road, modeled after the recently-opened German autobahn. The turnpike became a bit of a destination in its own right; most Americans had never been anything like it– 14 miles with no intersections, street lights, or stop signs. Drivers pulled over to better see the new, glowing signs and it acquired the nickname “the road of the future.” Speed limits on this type of road had not been decided, the upper limit was determined by the cooling systems of the cars, and signs directed motorists only to “Drive Carefully.” The turnpike quickly became highly traveled; estimates for the use of the turnpike were only a half of the eventual amount of cars.
The beginning of World War II coincided with the opening of the turnpike, and the military quickly understood the value of the new, efficient design. This innovation was capable of quickly moving troops and equipment between cities and in 1944 Congress moved to create what is now the interstate system. Anxiety ran high regarding the tunnels in particular– the public worried about cave-ins, and sabotage was a concern. During construction of the turnpike, dynamite was found under a bridge in Bedford and equipment was damaged, presumably by rival contractors, but it did establish precedent.
Military exercises were held to defend the turnpike town of Bedford, should it come “under siege,” and guards placed at the tunnel entrances questioned “suspicious” drivers.
SUMMATION UP TO 2001:
By the 1950’s, expansion was clearly needed. Traffic became so heavy that the narrow tunnels could not support it, creating a bottleneck and back ups in either direction. In the end it was most cost-effective to run a wider expressway along a parallel path than to expand the existing turnpike and tunnel system. The commission rerouted the turnpike, and in 1968 the tunnels were abandoned– devastating the communities who had developed around turnpike traffic and were economically reliant upon it. Several neglected buildings stand empty along the actual turnpike, an illustration of the effect on the nearby towns. Visiting the Rays Hill tunnel requires stopping in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, a turnpike-dependent town also possessed of a traffic bottleneck– precisely the situation Bedford and Fulton found themselves in at the turnpike’s re-routing. A Breezewood business owner remarked to the Wall Street Journal, “Take that traffic away, and Breezewood would die.”
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission retained ownership of the disused section until 2001, when it was turned over to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy group. Since the closure of the turnpike, the trail had become a popular tourist destination for hikers, bicyclists, and urban explorers. Wikipedia reports the turnpike was cosmetically in good shape until the 1980’s, when vandalism began to take hold and the letters were stolen. The area’s post apocalyptic charm only grew, and the tunnels remained structurally sound, by most reports. There was much excitement about the acquisition and plans to create a formal biking path out of the turnpike. Shortly after the acquisition, however, a feasibility study came back with estimates of 3.5 million to restore the tunnels. The Pike to Bike project “imploded” and further progress was halted. Since then, the future of the trail has been unclear.
The derelict tunnels were used to portray a ruined world in the film adaption of the post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and the surrounding area remains a popular hunting destination. Local wildlife has enjoyed the relative peace in the idle space. Several species of bats have begun nesting in one of the tunnels; a 1999 study of the bat population in the train tunnel found the third largest hibernacula of the endangered Indiana Brown Bat. The Pennsylvania Game Commission advises visitors not to enter during their hibernation period, which begins in October, but this is not enforced. The turnpike’s ownership remains contested after the dissolution of its conservancy group and at time of writing, the legality of visiting is ambiguous. Though technically illegal, visiting has been permitted with a “wink and a nod.”
THE FUTURE OF THE TUNNELS:
Inter-county disputes pose a major barrier to development. A local paper reports that although the majority of the trail is in Fulton County, Bedford County is the better positioned to gain economically. The feasibility study suggested Fulton County’s share of the profits might be only 20%. Fulton County Newspaper reported in 2014 on the results of the study, and the frustrations of at least one local business owner over the halting progress.
The community remains invested in the turnpike despite the overwhelming odds, and this month a community clean up effort had an unexpectedly large turn out. Potential is apparent, and reviews of nearby hotels include proximity to the trailhead. One survey projected 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year to the completed trail. Restaurants, bike rentals, hotels, convenience stores and others were identified as points of growth for the town following improvements to the trail; one version of this improvement package would include a museum and solar recharging panels. These improvements would be a considerable change to the trail; during my 2009 visit, the tunnel had no running water, no lighting, and was accessed by gravel roads– and nothing would indicate this has changed.