The Pennsylvania Turnpike laid the foundation for today’s interstate highway system


  • Katie Blackley / WESA

The Pennsylvania Turnpike: the concrete connector of the Commonwealth and the first highway in the United States. The road was once called the “World’s Greatest Highway” and helped lay the foundation for what would become the Federal Interstate Highway System.

Good question, Elaine Herald of Highland Park wondered about the markers on the toll freeway and “where do they measure mileage to Pittsburgh, where is the point?”

A pennet for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Courtesy of Mitch Dakelman

A pennet for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

According to toll highway officials, the point is in Pittsburgh’s central business district. Depending on the GPS system, the specific location is either in front of Mellon Green at the corner of Grant Street and Sixth Avenue, or a few blocks in front of the City County Building on Grant Street. Some cities, like France, have a “Zero Point” marker indicating the point of origin of the measurement. Pittsburgh doesn’t, but the question of measurement was also on the mind of Jana Thompson of North Side’s Good Question.

“I wondered about the likelihood that the exit to Pittsburgh on the toll highway is actually mile 57,” Thompson asked.

The 57 is a nod to the famous 57 varieties of ketchup from the HJ Heinz company. Carl Defebo, director of public relations and marketing at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said it’s pure coincidence that the number is the same.

“Mile zero is the Ohio border and Mile 359 is the New Jersey border,” Defebo said.

The unfinished route of the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad was cropped from an 1884 map of the proposed rail lines.

Wikimedia Commons / United States Library of Congress

The unfinished route of the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad was cropped from an 1884 map of the proposed rail lines.

An all-season highway

Most of the toll highway follows the route of the old Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. The line was envisioned as a competitor to the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad and funded in part by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and businessman William Vanderbilt. But due to the cost and the difficult terrain, it was never completed.

New England metropolitan areas like New York had started improving their local street networks and Pennsylvania was eager to join. By the end of the 1930s, cars were becoming more and more popular and people wanted a faster way to cross the state.

“What created the toll highway was really this concept of building an all-season highway through the mountains instead of Route 30, which would take you over the mountains,” Defebo said.

Transit officials decided that the fastest and most efficient route for the new toll highway would be on the existing right-of-way of the old Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Right-of-way is the legal ability to cross property owned by someone else and is often used for large transit systems such as railways and highways.

“It was a natural place to build a freeway,” said Neal Schorr, Pittsburgh physician and co-author of “The Pennsylvania Turnpike”. “If nothing else, this provided a good excuse to proceed with the construction. “

A watercolor postcard to Newville, Pennsylvania, about 175 miles east of Pittsburgh, shown here circa 1940 by painter Denis Hoffman

Courtesy of Mitch Dakelman

A watercolor postcard to Newville, Pennsylvania, about 175 miles east of Pittsburgh, shown here circa 1940 by painter Denis Hoffman

South Pennsylvania Railroad workers had dug nine tunnels through seven mountains. So the toll highway planners determined that with some upgrades like lighting and ventilation, they could use six for the new roadway. Using the tunnels also eliminated the need for severe leveling, so motorists would not have to encounter significant hills on their journeys.

At the time, one of the only other major limited-access highways in the world was the Autobahn in Germany. Turnpike officials have asked the federal government for funding, saying Pennsylvania’s new highway would be a way to get military and equipment across the state quickly. President Franklin D. Roosevelt went even further and made the construction of the toll highway a project of the Works Progress Administration. The agency provided jobs for struggling families during the Great Depression and projects included bridges, museums and hospitals.

“It was this weird kind of merging of global events going on that kind of led to the birth of the toll highway,” Defebo said. “It was designed by engineers who wanted to design a consistent end-to-end experience. “

With the financing in hand, construction began. Schorr said the original 160 miles of the toll highway was built in less than two years, “which would never happen today and nothing has ever happened like before.”

The trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on the toll highway was two hours shorter than a trip on Route 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. The highway was modern – the lanes were all the same width and motorists could use it without encountering a stop sign or red light. Mitch Dakelman, the other co-author of “The Pennsylvania Turnpike,” said the hype surrounding the opening of the toll highway was palpable. At midnight on October 1, 1940, the original span between Irwin and Carlisle was opened to traffic.

“A lot of people all over the country came to see him,” Dakelman said. “It was an attraction not only to get you from place to place, but it was so new.”

The Bedford interchange circa 1940.

Courtesy of Mitch Dakelman

The Bedford interchange circa 1940.

Driving on the “largest highway in the world”

Nancy Summers recalls her family’s joke that “whether we were going north, southwest or east, we drove at least a section of the toll highway, even though it didn’t. acted only from one interchange to another ”. His father, Franklin Summers, headed the Turnpike Commission from the late 1950s.

Summers described the early experiences of Pennsylvania’s toll freeway, when people had retirement parties at the Rays Hills Tunnel, one of the unused and abandoned tunnels. The original toll highway passed through rural areas and farmland, so Neal Schorr said there weren’t many amenities for motorists.

“This part of the Pennsylvania crossing really felt like wilderness,” Schorr said.

Because there were no federal highway standards at the time, the toll highway exits were numbered sequentially from one to eleven. That changed in the early 2000s when mile-based numbering took effect.

Now the once rural areas are more developed and most of the original places have disappeared. The toll plazas are almost all automated, so Summers said she no longer brings “Christmas cookies to the Gettysburg interchange and Blue Mountain” because the toll workers were no longer there.

Today, the toll highway may look like any other road, but its then modern design and innovative approach to travel by car give it a special place in the history of American infrastructure.

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