You think I'm kidding?

I'm not.

The abandoned highway to end all abandoned highways

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....

Creating the logjam

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike first opened from Middlesex 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 as a four-lane expressway, the tunnels could only accommodate one lane of traffic in each direction. By the late '50s, eastbound traffic backlogs became common at the Laurel Hill Tunnel, and congestion began to cause delays at other tunnels as well.

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Fixing the logjam

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 rejoining the Turnpike mainline roughly three miles east of the Sideling Hill Tunnel.

Original Turnpike alignment highlighted in yellow with bypass shown in white

The interchange with old-as-dust US 30 was at the western end of the soon-to-be-bypassed section, and the fine people of PTC had a half-assed solution to that problem up their sleeves (while, apparently, their heads were up something else). An interchange would be built at the western end of the bypass (see the maps below), and exiting traffic would follow a short section of the old Turnpike to an at-grade intersection with US 30. Why was this a bone-headed move? Let me put it this way. The PA Department of Highways (the forerunner of PennDOT) opened Interstate 70 from the Maryland line to Breezewood in 1964. Like two children throwing tantrums, the Department of Highways decided to dump its I-70 traffic onto US 30, and the PTC chose to dump its traffic onto US 30 less that a mile away. "Mommy, its his turn to build an interchange!" As a result, a driver trying to go from the westbound Turnpike to southbound I-70 has to drive west, passing over I-70, exit and pay his toll, drive east, passing under I-70, merge onto westbound US 30, get in the left lane, and finally turn left onto I-70. The word "rigamarole" was invented in Breezewood.

Circuitous routes to I-70 from westbound (left) and eastbound (right) through Breezewood

The somewhat diminutive Cove Valley Service Plaza, which was also 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, a service plaza 15 miles to the east that the PTC would soon close.

Cove Valley site along original Turnpike with Sideling Hill Plaza on bypass

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. If I had been up and running in 1968, I know where I would have been on Black Friday, and it's not the local mall.

In more recent 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 (sponsored by Krylon) were held on the tunnel walls. It's hard to say exactly when 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 newfangled rumble-strips called Sonic Nap Alert Pattern (SNAP), and conducted reflectivity tests using old people in the depths of Sideling Hill. The parking lot at Cove Valley was used by the PA State Police as a firing range. I've also read that a tire-chain commercial was filmed on the old road and that tunnels were used to test emissions of unleaded gasoline, but I have no way of verifying either claim.

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 set 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.


© 2006 Brian Troutman. All rights reserved. This site looks much better on a Mac.