Abandoned Turnpike, Part 1

Despite how much fun it is to poke fun at our local roads, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is actually a pretty great road. Then-new features such as long entrance ramps, banked turns, and limited access have caused the Turnpike to become a standard against which all the Interstate systems have been built. It was so revolutionary for its time (designed and built in the 1930s, opened in 1940) that eager drivers rapidly saturated the road’s capacity — and their eagerness is what ultimately led to our explorations this past Sunday.  For a basic primer on the abandoned segment of the PA Turnpike, see my previous post.

We met at the far-too-early hour of 8:30 in the morning and piled into the Element. Four in the front, gear in the back.  Just a short hop down I-81, A quick mishap at the Carlisle McDonalds, and it’s westbound on 76 under sunny skies and high-60-something air. Flawless weather for a road trip.  The drive itself was pretty uneventful, as the Turnpike is not known for driving excitement. But about an hour after getting on the ‘pike, we saw the first signs of our treasure: the Sideling Hill plaza.

The Sideling Hill plaza is at the foot of the biggest incline on the Turnpike. It’s about 53 miles past the Carlisle exit and is impossible to miss. It’s also the only plaza on the mainline where you access the same facilities from either direction of travel. But more importantly, it’s a landmark to let you know you’ve entered hallowed ground. As you approach the plaza, a third crawl / exit lane will open up on the right-hand side. Shortly after this lane begins, you’ll see a cutaway on the shoulder of the eastbound side. This cutaway stands out from the rest in that it is fairly large (about five lanes wide), breaks off at a reverse angle from eastbound traffic, and ends in a guardrail with a curiously car-sized opening to one side. This cutaway affords you a brief glimpse of the old Turnpike as you pass by.

To get to the abandoned stretch, take the PA Turnpike to the Breezewood exit (161?). Breezewood is an odd town in and of itself, in that it’s entirely truck stops. I’m not kidding. At the exit, take Route 30 east. If you want to hike all the way from the western end, there is a small gravel area (park at your own risk) shortly after the Quality Inn on your LEFT, at the intersection of Tannery Road and Rt 30 (note: the bridge shown on the satellite photo is no longer there).  Walk up the embankment and you’ll be on the westernmost part of the trail.  Alternatively, you can continue east on 30 for about three miles until you see a sign for Route 915 South. At this intersection, there’s an unmarked gravel road to your left — take it. After the underpass, turn right and follow the twisty single-land road (officially, “Oregon Road”)down the mountain. Eventually you’ll find a parking area on your left (if you go under a second underpass, you’ve gone too far). This places you about halfway down the trail, and about midway between the two tunnels.

We chose the second entrance because we figured it would make a perfect mid-day rallying point for lunch. We’d walk up to the Sideling Hill tunnel, return, lunch, and head up to Rays Hill.  A quick stop at the neighborhood Sheetz left us with plenty of subs and beverages, and an ice-filled styrofoam cooler to keep it nicely chilled.

When we saw the old pike for the first time, we all shouted in unison, “there it is!”  I felt a little sheepish about being that excited over a road, but it felt like we had found something special.  As if we’d tracked down an old friend.  As we began our final descent down the mountain, we caught more and more glimpses off in the distance through the trees. About a mile later and we stumbled across the decent-sized parking area. Backpacks fully stocked, we departed to the east.

The weather was perfect for our trek. It didn’t get much above 80 the entire day, and scattered clouds gave scattered reprieves from the sun. A slight breeze coming down the mountain not only kept the air from getting stale, but brought an odd mixture of truck exhaust (from the actual Turnpike above) and forest.

The roadway is in surprisingly good condition. No, scratch that — for being exposed to the elements with no maintenance for 40+ years, it’s in spectacular condition. It’s perfectly suited for biking or walking. Curiously, some segments show severe decay on one side, with weeds and grass breaking up through the pavement, while the other side remains virtually untouched. It’s like watching the opening salvos (or finishing blows, depending on your perspective) in a battle of man vs nature.

It was interesting to note the differences between a 1968 highway and a 2007 highway. For example, there was no divider down the median (and the median itself was no more than four feet wide). For that matter, there were no guard rails. Not even those worthless steel-cable types. The road markings were different, too — double white lines separated the travel lanes from the median, while single white lines marked the outer lanes.  In other places, single yellow lines defined the median, while still others used single white lines.  With the exception of the PennDOT testing areas on the western end, none of the paint was today’s new-fangled reflective type.  And rumble strips?  Forget it.  While the current Turnpike has strips on both shoulders to let motorists know they’re drifting off the road, the old Turnpike has none.  With no strips and no guardrails, it’s amazing more people didn’t wind up in the lake below.

Most of the concrete elements that we encountered (such as bridges, embankments, and tunnels) were in varying states of decay. While I think it’ll be several decades until they become unsafe to walk on, they’re definitely no longer suitable for even light vehicular traffic.  Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine the roadway packed with cars buzzing along at speeds of 30, 40, or even 50 mph (which I’m told was pretty fast for 1968).  What WAS hard was accepting that this road has been vacant for almost four decades.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2, which will cover the tunnels and related machinery.  Also, I’m sifting through 400+ photos right now trying to build a Tabblo.  Whatever passes my rigid quality control will be posted later this week.