Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Almost no one could have foreseen, fifty years ago, that an experiment in trans­portation engineering mean­dering across the rugged southern Alleghenies could profoundly affect the way tens of millions of Americans tra­vel. But from the very day it opened on October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike did just that – despite the fact that its first section ran from nowhere to nowhere.

The Turnpike touched no cities in its one hundred-and­-sixty-mile stretch from one sleepy village to another. Ex­tending from Middlesex in Cumberland County to Cha­lybeate in Bedford County and to Straw Pump in Westmore­land County, the only towns it even came near were Carlisle, Bedford, Somerset and Irwin. Yet it proved – once and for all – the popularity and practi­cality of the limited-access, long-haul, multiple-lane su­perhighway concept.

By adding a long-distance, high-speed dimension to America’s passionate love affair with the automobile (and increasing mobility), the Turn­pike set the stage for construc­tion of a forty-three thousand mile network of superhigh­ways crisscrossing the nation. Established in the 1950s, the federal interstate free highway system, whose engineering concept sprang from the Turn­pike’s pioneering design, be­came the largest public works program in history.

The Turnpike idea was first seriously raised in the mid-1930s, prompted by a great need to find massive labor­-intensive projects with which to employ legions of jobless Pennsylvanians, victims of the Great Depression. Neither the concept of a toll road nor the proposed route was new to Pennsylvania, however. A wagon turnpike had been built from Philadelphia to Lancaster in 1794, which was extended to Columbia, on the Susque­hanna River, in 1803. It was the arrival of rapid advances in technology – first the canal system in the 1820s and 1830s and then the railroads from about 1840 on – that brought an end to the turnpikes of that era. A Philadelphia to Pitts­burgh trip that was measured in weeks by wagon came to be measured in days via canal boat and, finally, in hours by railroad travel.

The route through Pennsyl­vania’s southern tier eventu­ally chosen for the superhighway had first been surveyed in the 1830s as one of three cross-state alignment alternatives under consider­ation by the Pennsylvania Railroad, but later rejected in favor of a course that used the valleys of the Susquehanna, Juniata and Conemaugh riv­ers. More than twenty years later, the line was completed, and the company began offering express service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Although discarded, the southern route proposal did not lie dormant for long. In the early 1880s, New York finan­cier and railroad baron William Vanderbilt decided to chal­lenge the Pennsylvania Rail­road’s monopoly on iron, coal and steel traffic between Pitts­burgh and the eastern markets by plotting his own competing line, the South Pennsylvania Railroad, which followed the ridge lines of the mountains rather than the curving river valley floors. With backing from Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Vanderbilt organized a fifteen million dollar syndicate and hired thousands of laborers, survey­ors and engineers. For his chief engineer, he hired Robert Sayre, who had held a similar post at the Lehigh Valley Rail­road. The double-track South Pennsylvania was projected to extend from Harrisburg (and a connection with the Reading Railroad for outlets to New York and Philadelphia) to Port Perry (and a connection with Vanderbilt’s Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad) over a route that included nine tun­nels. From 1883 to 1885, it brought prosperity to such places as Everett, Bedford and Burnt Cabins, but that would not last.

The South Pennsylvania Railroad became a symbol of the speculative, capitalistic, cut-throat railroad fever that swept the United States virtu­ally unchecked in the late nineteenth century. Because it was so large and threatened such a financially solid line as the Pennsy, the South Penn’s completion would have trig­gered a major fallout of inves­tor confidence in many railroads throughout the coun­try. A truce in 1885 halted construction, but not before sixty percent of its roadbed grading and approximately four and a half miles of tunnel excavation were completed – at a cost of ten million dollars. Many proposed American railroads were abandoned in mid-construction, but none was larger or costlier than the project that came to be ridi­culed as “Vanderbilt’s Folly.”

Fifty years later, it was those abandoned roadbeds and the partially completed tunnels that gave planners and engineers the idea for a super­highway of a type and scale unprecedented in America. The alignment was ideal­ – railroad engineering entails relatively easy grades and relatively gentle curves be­cause of the need for moving long, heavy freight trains. And because the South Pennsylva­nia Railroad had been planned as a freight line, it did not have to pass through cities as would a passenger line. This meant that a highway over the South Pennsylvania route would avoid urban congestion and property acquisition for right­-of-way would be much simpler and cheaper.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike idea was promoted primarily by Democratic New Dealers who saw it as a vehicle for reducing joblessness under Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s national unem­ployment relief programs. The key actors in Pennsylvania included William Sutherland, an executive of the Pennsylva­nia Motor Truck Association; Victor Lecoq, an employee of the state Planning Board, an agency assigned to find large projects to provide jobs; and Clifford S. Patterson, a Monongahela undertaker who held an Ohio State engineer­ing degree and who in early 1935 had been newly elected to the House of Representatives. Edward H. Flickinger, a state municipal planner who was an associate of Lecoq’s, was a native of Path Valley in Frank­lin County and brought the existence of the roadbed to Lecoq’s attention. In February 1935, Lecoq made an explor­atory trip to see the stillborn giant for himself. From the Ferner Hotel in Somerset, he wrote to his supervisor in Harrisburg: “On Wednesday I covered courthouses at Cham­bersburg, McConnellsburg, Bedford and Somerset, also interview 3 old-timers. I have located on maps all nine tunnels – will take a trip out to Laurel Hill tunnel this morn­ing, spend afternoon in Som­erset Court House and try to make the Chestnut Ridge tunnel Friday morning. We certainly have something.”

On April 28, 1935, Patterson introduced a resolution in the state legislature calling for a feasibility study. Although it provided no money, it passed, and Secretary of Highways Warren Van Dyke applied for, and was awarded, a federal Works Progress Administra­tion grant to carry out the study. The survey lasted from early 1936 to early 1937 and showed that, from an engi­neering perspective, recycling the right-of-way for a highway was possible, if given enough money. On May 21, 1937, Gov. George H. Earle signed Act 211, which created a Turnpike Commission but, like the feasi­bility resolution, authorized no state funding for it. The Com­mission was given responsibil­ity for raising the estimated sixty million to seventy million dollars from federal and pri­vate sources.

The concept of a one hun­dred and sixty mile toll super highway was too revolutionary for Wall Street. Commission Chairman Walter A. Jones, a Pittsburgh millionaire influen­tial in Democratic politics and a confidant of FDR, found that he could not sell a sixty­-million-dollar bond issue. Finally, Roosevelt, realizing the value of the Turnpike to the military in the face of rising tensions in Europe, agreed to issue a $29.25 million grant through the Public Works Administration and to purchase nearly forty-one million dollars worth of bonds through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to be resold to the public. Eventu­ally, the theory proposed, toll revenue would repay the bond obligations and the Turnpike would be turned over to the state Highway Department as a free road, probably by 1954.

The nucleus of a staff was assembled, and Samuel Mar­shall of Norristown, who had been the Department of High­ways chief engineer, declined a seat on the commission to take a direct role in the project as chief engineer. The Turnpike route began at Middlesex, just east of Carlisle on Route 11 and about fifteen miles west of Harrisburg. It extended nearly straight west to the foot of Blue Mountain, where it picked up the first bit of aban­doned South Pennsylvania right-of-way.

The Turnpike used six of the nine old railroad tunnels, including Blue Mountain, Kittatinny Mountain, Tus­carora Mountain, Sideling Hill, Ray’s Hill and Laurel Hill, none of which had been com­pleted. A seventh, Allegheny Mountain, was built adjacent to the old tunnel, which was considered too unstable and dangerous to attempt re-use. Two others, Quemahoning and Negro Hill, were bypassed with deep cuts. The Turnpike used large portions of the abandoned railroad roadbed, but for various reasons, did not use all of it. One reason is that motor vehicles can easily climb a three-percent grade (three feet of elevation in one hundred feet of travel), while the railroad design, with heavy freight trains in mind, had been laid out with a maxi­mum two percent grade, often necessitating a circuitous climb to overcome elevation. In many such places, the high­way route cut a direct path and in one instance, bypassed a large horseshoe curve equiva­lent to the legendary Horse­shoe Curve on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today it is still possible to discern the high earthen embankments, deep cuts through hillsides and surprisingly large number of stone culverts along sections of the Vanderbilt project that were not used for the highway.

The design specifications of the Pennsylvania Turnpike called for a four-lane, straight­-and-level alignment that al­lowed typical top speeds of seventy miles an hour, faster by twenty miles an hour than the law allowed on the best existing Pennsylvania high­ways. One hundred and ten miles of the initial one hun­dred and sixty miles were straight. Best of all, there were no intersections, traffic lights, stop signs, railroad crossings or other obstructions. A mo­torist would be able to drive from end to end without stop­ping, a concept that had been seen in Germany’s autobahnen, but nowhere in America.

Not only would the Turn­pike be shorter than the exist­ing roads – Route 22 (the William Penn Highway) and a combination of Routes 30 (the Lincoln Highway) and Route 11 – but it also would be safer and faster. The tunnels gave it another benefit that would ensure its commercial value to trucking firms while at the same time keeping it open in severe winter weather. Compared to Route 30, it reduced the accumulated climb over the Alleghenies by nine thousand feet, from a total of thirteen thousand feet to less then four thousand feet!

As plans moved toward completion and the final fed­eral funding arrangements were coming together, not everyone was euphoric. While the Turnpike’s backers were promoting it as a “dream highway” from the standpoint of a motorist’s ease of travel, critics used the same term to characterize its promoters as dreamers. The William Penn Highway Association and the Central Pennsylvania Hotel Association violently opposed the Turnpike, charging that its opening would throw as many as twenty thousand hotel, garage and restaurant em­ployees out of work in com­munities along Route 22, such as Lewistown and Hun­tingdon. These groups complained that the Turnpike would never pay for itself, that it would cut in half the state’s four hundred million dollar annual tourist trade, and mil­lions of dollars’ worth of prop­erty valuations along the existing roads would be ru­ined. They also claimed that if the federal grant monies (ini­tially estimated at twenty-four million dollars and issued by the Works Progress Adminis­tration, not the PWA) were spent instead on Routes 22 and 30, the state could have two four-lane cross-state roads for the price of one. But they underestimated the power of an idea; the appeal of a low­-grade, limited-access road that took advantage of an aban­doned and available right-of­-way was too strong.

Construction began on October 27, 1938, with a groundbreaking ceremony on a farm near Newburg in Cum­berland County. The project gave employment to approxi­mately fifteen thousand peo­ple who worked for the Commission or its one hun­dred and fifty-five subcontrac­tors from eighteen states. Because of incredibly short deadlines imposed by the federal funding agencies, it was necessary to rush its con­struction ’round the clock.

The most dramatic part of the project was the completion of the tunnels, which averaged a little less than a mile each. Even though Vanderbilt’s workers had excavated from both ends, they had not com­pleted a bore; consequently, the tunnels had to be drilled and blasted completely through, widened and lined with concrete. In addition, portal buildings had to be built, roadway laid and venti­lating ducts, fans and lighting installed. Costing more than thirteen million dollars in all, they were the longest venti­lated highway tunnels then built in the country, and their excavation was made more difficult because of soft, unsta­ble rock.

The highway, tunnels and interchange ramps were under contract by July 1939. A month later, the first concrete mix for the roadway was poured and twin twenty-four foot wide ribbons of concrete were laid across the countryside, nar­rowing to a two-lane width only for the tunnels. With the push for rapid completion, records for laying concrete roadway were set and broken almost daily. On one day in 1940, ten miles of single-lane roadway was placed.

“It was a happy period. We were accomplishing things in record time,” recalled Milton Brumer, one of the design engineers, in an interview in the spring of 1990. “We real­ized that we were blazing a trail; we felt we were doing something for mankind.” But not all of mankind was happy about what the Commission was doing.

Many farmers, angry about the taking of their property by eminent domain proceedings, put up a fight. Harry J. Gonga­ware of Straw Pump strung a barbed-wire barrier and no-­trespassing signs on his prop­erty, which just happened to be the site the planners had in mind for the Irwin toll plaza. The Commission won an injunction, and eventually the case was settled. However, in Westmoreland County alone, nearly two hundred property claims were filed against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In April 1940, the Commis­sion awarded a franchise for gas station and restaurant facilities to the Standard Oil Company. In turn, Standard arranged for Howard John­son’s, the New England res­taurant chain, to provide food service. On May 6, 1940, ground was broken for the large Midway service plaza at the village of Chalybeate, just north of Bedford. It was the only full-service restaurant planned; nine others were built as coffee-and-sandwich shops with counter service only. Each service plaza con­sumed five hundred thousand dollars in construction costs.

While work continued at a frenzy, curious citizens were getting a look at the new high­way. When Rays Hill Tunnel was cut through from end to end, an Everett resident, Charles R. Laher, rode through it on horseback. The Bedford Gazette commented: “It may prove to be the last trip of its sort through the tunnel, for the all-weather highway when completed will prove too fast a track even for the speediest horse.” A sixty-year-old Greensburg electrician, Henry G. Sample, hiked the entire distance in ten days, sleeping on sawdust he obtained from the contractors and eating milk, chocolate and raw eggs that he carried in a knapsack. And little by little, as sections of the roadway were completed, motorists began to sneak on for an unofficial peek at the highway.

A July 4, 1940, dedication was planned, with President Roosevelt scheduled to appear. But that summer, the presi­dent had begun a controversial bid for an unprecedented third term, by which time the Com­mission’s composition had changed and Republicans now held control. Newspapers speculated that the Republican party did not want to give Roosevelt what would amount to a free campaign appearance. Tune and again, a dedication, planned to be held at Bedford was rescheduled. The Bedford community, excited at the prospect of a presidential visit, quivered in anticipation of what it thought would be the largest crowd of visitors in its history.

Meanwhile, the Commis­sion was hiring and training toll-booth attendants, and the state police were preparing a special fifty-nine member Turnpike troop. Finally, as summer began to tum to au­tumn, the Commission met on September 30 and abruptly decided to open the road at one minute after midnight. There would be no ceremony or dedication.

Once the Turnpike was opened, there was no turning back. In its first six months, no speed limit was enforced, and drivers came to feel the true thrill of the road. Many motor­ists cruised over the one hun­dred and sixty miles in as little as two and a half hours. The toll – $1.50 for a full-length trip by passenger car, higher for trucks – deterred no one. On its first Sunday, October 6, twenty-seven thousand vehi­cles jammed the road, causing traffic backups at exit ramps that lasted well into the night. A week after it opened, Gov. Arthur James drove from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and called it “a peach of a road.” Truck­ers found that it cut a full day off transit times between the East and the Midwest.

More significant than the excitement over its opening was the pattern of usage that followed. In its first year, nearly two and a half million vehicles, averaging 6,575 each day, used the Turnpike. This was nearly twice the level that the Commission’s traffic pro­jections had predicted and more than nine times what the federal Bureau of Public Roads – which disliked toll roads – had predicted. But these numbers soon diminished.

Pearl Harbor Day came just fourteen months after the Turnpike opened, and the outbreak of World War II cut deeply into the highway’s patronage and revenues. Plea­sure travel dropped to practi­cally nothing, while armed forces used the road heavily for military movements. Women replaced men at Standard’s gasoline pumps but not at the Commission’s toll booths. With the end of the war came the lifting of gaso­line and tire rationing, and tollgates became floodgates of traffic. The small restaurant­-and-gas station plazas all were expanded to provide full meal service. In 1950, the highway was extended east to Valley Forge, and in 1951 it reached west to the Ohio line. In 1954, it stretched farther east to the Delaware River, and two years later, a bridge connection with the New Jersey Turnpike was opened, bringing the east-west length to about three hundred and sixty miles. In 1957, a one­-hundred-and-ten-mile branch from Norristown to Scranton­ – the Northeastern Extension – was added. The Turnpike’s financial success had encour­aged the opening of many other toll roads across the nation, from Maine and Flor­ida to Kansas and Colorado.

From a tally of approxi­mately two and a half million vehicles in its first year, the Turnpike’s volume rose to eighteen million by 1956, the year the federal interstate highway act was passed. That legislation brought an end to the toll road expansion that had been sparked by Pennsyl­vania’s pioneering superhigh­way. Although the new highways were free and were modern – they had a wider, safer median strip than the Turnpike’s original ten-foot divider, for example – they owed both their basic design and their very existence to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.


For Further Reading

Cupper, Dan. The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History. Lebanon: Applied Arts Publishers, 1990.

____. “The Pennsylvania Turn­pike Celebrates Its 50th Anniver­sary. ” Pennsylvania Magazine. 10, 3 (February 1990), 6.

____. “The Road to the Future.” American Heritage. 41, 4 (May/June 1990), 102.

Harper, John H. The Story of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Harris­burg: N.P., N.D.

Jacobs, Timothy. The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Greenwich, Conn.: Bonanza Books, 1988.

Jones, Penelope R. The Story of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: N.P., 1950.

Landon, Charles. “Reasons for the Financial Success of the Penn­sylvania Turnpike.” Traffic Quarterly. 9 (1955), 5-23.

Stewart, R. W “Pennsylvania Turnpike and Its Landscape Tradi­tion.” Landscape Architect. 32 (1942), 47-56.

Shank, William H. Indian Trails to Superhighways. York, Pa.: American Canal and Transporta­tion Center, 1988.

____. Vanderbilt’s Folly: A History of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. York, Pa.: American Canal and Transportation Center, 1989.

Smock, Ray F. “The Greatest State Highway System in the Nation.” Commonwealth. 2, 12 (December 1947), 3-6.

Swetnam, George. Pennsylvania Transportation. Gettysburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1964.


The editor wishes to thank Peggy Stapleton of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for her gracious assistance in lending illustrations for this article.


Dan Cupper, Harrisburg, is a freelance writer and editor, whose special interests include the his­tory of transportation and railroading. His first article for this magazine, “Grif Teller Paints the Pennsy, ” appeared in the winter 1990 issue. In addition to this article celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he has also contributed stories to American Heritage and Pennsylvania Magazine. He is also the author of a book entitled The Pennsylvania Turn­pike: A History.