Brian Troutman Land

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike — Brief History

by on Nov.01, 2004, under Abandoned Turnpike

Original Two-Lane Turnpike Tunnel

Original 1940s-era two-lane Turnpike tunnel. (Source: PA Turnpike Commission)

Anyone reading this probably knows the all about the history of the abandoned Turnpike, so I don’t really know why I’m even writing this, but anyway….

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike first opened from Carlisle to Irwin in 1940, the new toll road was truly “America’s Tunnel Highway.” A trip from one end to the other would take a motorist through seven different tunnels: (from east to west) Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, Sideling Hill, Ray’s Hill, Allegheny, and Laurel Hill.

While the length of the Turnpike was built to unheard of (at the time) construction standards—two travel lanes in each direction, a grass median dividing traffic, complete control of access—the tunnels could accommodate only one lane of traffic in each direction. For early Turnpike travelers, these seven tunnels were the motoring equivalent of commas, brief slowdowns to 35 punctuating countless miles of unfettered cruising. Turnpike planners were not concerned with potential bottlenecks; these merge points could easily handle the ’40s modest traffic volumes.

But as postwar prosperity emerged and passenger rail declined, Turnpike traffic mushroomed. From a meager 1.3 million vehicles in 1940, annual traffic grew exponentially to 4.4 million in 1950 and 31 million in 1960. By this time, eastbound traffic backlogs became common at the Laurel Hill Tunnel, and congestion began to cause delays at other tunnels as well.

In 1959, The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) conducted an engineering study assessing possible options to alleviate traffic problems at Laurel Hill and Allegheny Mountain, and additional studies on the other five tunnels soon followed. Based on the studies, the PTC decided to build twin tunnels at Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny and bypass Laurel Hill, Ray’s Hill, and Sideling Hill. The PTC built a short bypass to circumvent Laurel Hill that opened in 1964, and construction of parallel tunnels at Allegheny, Tuscarora, Kittatinny, and Blue Mountain went underway in 1965 and ’66.

A more “involved” solution was concocted for the remaining two tunnels, Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill. The PTC decided to create a 13.5-mile bypass extending from a point on the existing Turnpike about three miles west of the Ray’s Hill Tunnel and rejoin the Turnpike mainline roughly three miles east of the Sideling Hill Tunnel. From west to east, this bypass would slowly ascend Ray’s Hill, run roughly parallel to the old turnpike through the highlands bridging the two ridges, then obliquely descend Sideling Hill to rejoin the mainline.

Ray's Hill/Sideling Hill Bypass Map

Aerial view looking northeast: The lower original route is highlighted in orange, and the high-elevation bypass is highlighted in blue; US 30 shown in white. (Satelite imagery: Google Earth)

The interchange with old-as-dust US 30 was situated at the western end of the soon-to-be-bypassed section, and a larger replacement interchange was included in the project. As part of the plans, exiting traffic would follow a short section of the old Turnpike to an at-grade intersection with US 30. In 1967, when the number of Turnpike travelers exiting onto US 30 was probably not much greater than the scant few you see exiting today at the desolate Fort Littleton interchange for US 522, this arrangement likely would have been sufficient.

However the following year, the PA Department of Highways (the forerunner of PennDOT) opened toll-free Interstate 70 from the Maryland state line north to US 30 at Breezewood, at which point the 70 designation would follow the Turnpike westward to New Stanton before breaking off on its own to the West Virginia border. Thus, the Breezewood interchange was no longer simply a means for local travelers to exit the Turnpike; it had become a conduit for traffic from Baltimore, Washington, western Maryland, and Northern Virginia bound for Pittsburgh, Columbus, the Midwest, and the West. And like the Turnpike, the PDH emptied I-70 motorists onto US 30 in Breezewood—less than a mile down the road from the Turnpike entrance.

Breezewood Interchange Before

Breezewood Interchange area before bypass: 1968 and earlier.

Breezewood Interchange Area After

Breezewood Interchange area after bypass completion: late 1968 to present. Notice that a portion of the original alignment is used to carry I-70 traffic into Breezewood; the Abandoned Turnpike stretches from here eastward.

Why would the PTC and PDH each cast their share of I-70 traffic into the purgatory of “downtown” Breezewood without offering anyone a direct connection? According to the Federal Highway Administration’s “Rambler” column, the answer is strictly a matter of funding. Because the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 prohibited the use of federal funds to construct access ramps to toll facilities, the PTC would have to expend its own resources to build a high-speed direct connection to I-70. That is, of course, unless the PTC wanted to cease collecting tolls on the Turnpike, which they had no interest in doing. In a 1966 hearing, PTC Director of Operations Franklin V. Summers testified that “where new interchanges would not afford an increase—great increase in revenue—we do not feel that these matters should be thrust upon the turnpike commission.”

The somewhat diminutive Cove Valley Service Plaza, which sat at the eastern portal of the Sideling Hill tunnel and was slated to be orphaned by the bypass, was given a replacement in the construction project. The new Sideling Hill Service Plaza would be much larger and serve both directions of travel, whereas Cove Valley served westbound travelers only. To a lesser extent, the Sideling Hill plaza would also act a partial replacement for Path Valley, another small service plaza 15 miles to the east that the PTC would soon close.

Rays Sideling Bypass Construction

Construction of the Ray's Hill/Sideling Hill Bypass nearing completion. The two-lane road crossing through the center is US 30, which had to be partially rerouted to accommodate the bypass. (Source: PA Turnpike Commission)

Construction on the bypass project began in July of 1966, and the Ray’s/Sideling bypass opened along with refurbished dual tunnels at Tuscarora, Kittatinny, and Blue Mountain on November 26, 1968. (Just in time for Thanksgiving, allowing the PTC to invite Macy’s to hold their annual parade on the abandoned Turnpike, an offer which Macy’s promptly declined.) That day planted a seed that would germinate deep within the heart of every roadgeek, even if that seedling would not take root for many years.

Fast forward almost 40 years: time has not been kind to the Turnpike, and neither have the miscreants who have decided to visit over the decades. Thanks to Mother Nature, the line paint is just about gone, and the pavement is crumbling; in some places, it’s about the consistency of kitty litter. Even though the asphalt is still in place, trees and brush have grown right up to the edge of the roadway, giving the abandoned section a much more claustrophobic feeling than the “alive” Turnpike. Both tunnels have been extensively vandalized; the letters spelling out the tunnels’ names are all gone, all glass has been shattered, and the National Profane Word Spelling Bee Championships were held on the tunnel walls. It’s hard to say exactly when most of this damage took place. Pictures from around 1970 (like this one) show nearly pristine tunnels, and a decade later, the pictures (like this one) don’t look bad, but by the ’90s…forget about it. It appears that the ’80s may have been “Morning in America,” but the decade was “Mourning for the Tunnels.” For those of you that might be wondering, the Cove Valley Service Plaza is still in the same condition that the PTC left it in: destroyed. The building was torn down after the bypassed section closed in 1968, and nothing is left.

The abandoned Turnpike has had other uses in its retirement. In 1987, the PTC reused the section of highway as a Safety Testing and Research (STAR) facility. They repaved a short section to test rumble-strips dubbed Sonic Nap Alert Pattern (SNAP), and conducted reflectivity tests using seasoned citizens in the depths of Sideling Hill. The parking lot at Cove Valley was used by the PA State Police as a firing range. Various sources suggest that a tire-chain commercial was filmed on the old road and that tunnels were used to test emissions of unleaded gasoline by a major petro company.

In 2001, the PTC sold most of the abandoned Turnpike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (SAC) for a single dollar. (I would have offered $2.) Since then, not much has happened to the roadway, mainly because SAC has been unable to secure any significant funding for the roadway, which is now slated to become the Superhighway Bike Trail. According to SAC representatives, the group does plan to repave the highway and rehabilitate the tunnels (including turning the lights back on), and their more ambitious plans involve restoring the road to its 1940s look and rebuilding the plaza at Cove Valley.

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