Despite the cold and damp weather that cast a raw pall over Southwestern Pennsylvania on Saturday, October 16th, faithful roadgeeks from around the Commonwealth and nearby states descended upon “the Town of Motels” for a pilgrimage onto a section of highway which is also one the most talked-about and mysticised topics for highway enthusiasts.
Of course, I refer to the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. The roughly 10 miles of toll road that was decommissioned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been sitting relatively dormant since 1968, but it was probably not until 30 years later—when the Internet reached popularity—that curious highway enthusiasts started visiting the highway in any significant numbers. The high level of interest in the abandoned section, as evidenced by the many web pages dedicated to it (including the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike page on briantroutman.com), made the highway anomaly an ideal setting for a roadgeek meet.
The SWPA Roadgeek Meet, organized by Jeff Kitsko, webmaster extraordinaire at pahighways.com, commenced at Hoss’s Steak and Sea House on Business US 220 in the Pennsylvania hamlet of Bedford. Various attendees shared their libraries of road-related reading materials as well as historic maps and other items, and a variety of give-away items, including highway pamphlets, maps, and copies of the lastest edition of Dan Cupper’s Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History, were distributed to all roadgeeks in attendance.
Following lunch, a convoy of the attendees vehicles traveled from Bedford to Breezewood via US 30 and congregated in the parking lot adjacent to Breezewood’s Ramada Inn. The passengers of the caravan’s approximately 10 vehicles regrouped into about 5 cars, and we headed out onto the abandoned Turnpike. Although I was not driving, personally, the experience of being in a vehicle on the abandoned section (and not walking or biking) was a rare treat.
At the western end of the abandoned turnpike, the group was introduced to John Bibber of the Southern Allegheny Conservancy (SAC), the organization which currently owns most of the bypassed section. Bibber briefly touched upon some of SAC’s possible plans for the road, including repaving the entire length, re-lighting the tunnels, and perhaps re-building the former Cove Valley service plaza.
At a few other stops along the journey, Russ Love, a historian studying the South Pennsylvania Railroad and webaster of southpennrailroad.com, pointed out places where the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built on top of the old South Penn right-of-way and other points where the two paths diverge. Of particular interest were the silent, aged stone culverts that were constructed to accommodate the never-completed railroad over 100 years ago.
After a stop at the western portal of the short Ray’s Hill Tunnel, we drove the 3,500-foot drive from Bedford County into Fulton County. (The border lies within the inky shadows of the tunnel.) Maintaining speeds of about 30 m.p.h. over pavement worse than I-80 during Pennsylvania’s bad old days, we continued eastbound toward Sideling Hill, the longest of the Turnpike’s original tunnels.
Upon reaching the western portal of Sideling Hill, many in the group (including myself) demonstrated our manhood by entering the maintenance room and ascending the rusty iron stairs into the ventilation room. Imagining that the tunnel was ever in operation (complete with men in uniforms busily attending to the ventilation equipment) was somewhat difficult given the condition of the maintenance areas. Though the tunnel lies quietly nestled in the wilderness of rural Pennsylvania, scarcely a square inch could be found that did not have several layers of graffiti on it. Every scrap of glass that once sat contently in its place had been smashed, and the shattered glass covered the floor along with broken bottles, crushed cans, and all types of rubbish imaginable. Behind the large tunnel ventilation equipment, a set of two doors were placed opposite each other at an acute angle. Passing through the doors, we entered a “tunnel above the tunnel,” a service shaft that enabled workers to replace lights and repair electrical connections and also provided for airflow above the vehicles driving through the tunnel. Walking carefully through this area was essential; where recessed lighting fixtures were once positioned to brighten the path of speeding DeSotos, gaping holes provided a gravity-powered shortcut into the abyss below.
With our curiosities largely satiated, my fellow roadgeeks and I returned to our vehicles and drove the more than 1.25 miles through Sideling Hill. Because of vertical curvature in the tunnel, neither end can be seen from the center. After emerging from the eastern portal, the group assembled in front of the tunnel for the obligatory group picture (viewable at the Abandoned PA Turnpike page at delmarvahighways.com).
Just east of Sideling Hill, we stopped at the site of the Cove Valley Service Plaza. The plaza, which opened in 1940 along with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, originally contained a smaller Howard Johnson’s restaurant along with the usual Esso station, but when the its section of Turnpike was bypassed in 1968, Cove Valley was closed, and the building was torn down as well. Only a parking lot remains, and the small footprint that originally housed the service plaza has become overgrown with brush.
Cove Valley marked the eastern end of our journey, and the group turned back to the west and retraced our path to Breezewood. After gathering once again in the Ramada parking lot, we all said our goodbyes and parted ways. Though this trip was certainly not my first encounter with the abandoned turnpike, having informed guides, an escort from SAC, and a small army of backup surely made it the best.