This past weekend I grabbed some friends and ventured west to re-visit the abandoned turnpike. As you may recall from my previous posts, the abandoned turnpike is hands-down my favorite nugget of bizarre Pennsylvania history. And ever since I learned that scenes for the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had been filmed along the abandoned ‘pike, I’ve yearned to go back. But, work being what it is, I haven’t had enough free time to return. So with the decent weather about to run out, I cleared my calendar and trekked up this past Saturday.
The Road is a critically-acclaimed, brutal story about the end of civilization. My words can’t do it justice, but the book is available on the cheap through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the like. You can read the Wikipedia entry for a spoiler, but trust me: Get the book.
The film adaptation was shot at various points along the abandoned turnpike. From watching the trailer (0:27 and 1:26), it appears that several tunnel scenes were filmed at the eastern portal of the Rays Hill tunnel. On the trip, we saw a substantial amount of paint that suggests filming may have also taken place at the eastern and western portals of the Sideling Hill tunnel.
There are three ways to access the abandoned turnpike. One puts you in the middle, one puts you on the far western end, and one puts you on the far eastern end. Personally, I prefer to start in the middle. For most of you reading this, the easiest is to take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Breezewood exit (about an hour west of Harrisburg). After paying your toll, you’ll drive down what seems like an extremely long 4-lane ramp. This is actually the original turnpike; the bypass begins at the tollbooth.
As you drive, you’ll see a sign for Route 30 East. This sign marks the approximate location of the original Breezewood interchange. In fact, if you look to your right, you can clearly see the original ramps. These dead end under a disused bridge, also formerly part of the ‘pike.
After exiting the turnpike, take Route 30 east. You’ll go up a steep hill and will eventually parallel the current-day Turnpike. When you see signs for Route 915, turn left onto the gravel access road. Bear right, and you’re on Oregon Road. Follow this single-lane gravel road down the hill until you see a parking area on your left (big enough to hold at least a dozen vehicles). This is where we normally park.
On this trip, however, we followed Oregon Road a bit further just to see where it went. As it turns out, there’s a large clearing just a little further up the road that will get you considerably closer to the Sideling Hill tunnel. I’m not sure if this is an official parking area or not, so park at your own risk. The abandoned turnpike will be about a tenth of a mile uphill.
What continues to amaze me about the abandoned turnpike is the condition of the roadway. For nearly half a century, the road surface has endured the brutal cycle of harsh Pennsylvania winters and spring thaws with absolutely zero maintenance. The fact that it still looks like a road is impressive.
From our new-found secret parking spot, the Sideling Hill tunnel was barely a 10-minute walk. As the longer of the two tunnels at roughly 1.3 miles, Sideling Hill definitely makes a much better low-light photography playground.
The first thing you notice when you approach the tunnel is how massive it is. The mouth of the tunnel is easily twenty feet tall, and there’s a huge ventilation room above. Dry, cool air comes out from the mouth with a gentle-but-persistent breeze; convection currents push the air out of both ends thanks to an interesting engineering trick. Water from nearby springs has penetrated the tunnel, and the irregular sound of dripping echos and amplifies into an unidentifiable rock-on-metal pinging sound.
Inside the tunnel there is virtually no usable light. By the time your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, you’re already beginning to approach the other end. Any interior photography is going to require manual exposure, controlled flashes, and a lot of patience. Bring extra batteries.
Although this stretch of the Turnpike was bypassed in 1966, it’s actually a sort of twice-abandoned highway. In the 1880s, William H. Vanderbilt began plans to expand the South Pennsylvania Railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. By the mid-1890s, plans for the railroad were scrapped. The details on this are far beyond the scope of my blog (this site has an excellent history), but the project was not fruitless.
Ever wonder about those piers that start on the west shore and seem to disappear into the Susquehanna? Those are all that was built of the railroad’s Susquehanna bridge. But more importantly, every tunnel on the mainline Turnpike except for the Allegheny tunnel was first bored in the 1880s as part of Vanderbilt’s Folly. That’s right; the next time you’re driving to Pittsburgh, most of the tunnels you’ll pass through are well over 125 years old.
Much of the right-of-way was used to push the PA Turnpike through the otherwise impassible mountains in the 1930s. Evidence of this can be clearly be seen when exiting the eastern portal of the Sideling Hill tunnel. Look for the 8- to 10-foot wide stretch of raised, level ground, and you’ve found the never-used railroad bed.
The abandoned turnpike is unofficially officially open / closed (officially unofficial) to the public (nudge nudge, wink wink) thanks to the efforts of the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy. The road itself is a deceptively easy hike. If you’re going to be staying on the roadway, wear sneakers. Hiking boots were not meant for pavement. Believe me, I speak from experience. Watch for open drainage pits in the median; stick to the pavement and you’ll be fine.
The tunnels are another story. Because they were never intended for tourism or pedestrian traffic, there exists a very real possibility for severe injury and/or death. Holes and open pits are present throughout the area, and no safeguards are present. None of the structures are inspected or examined regularly. Cell phone reception is spotty at best. So be careful.
Warnings aside, the abandoned turnpike is a unique experience that every Pennsylvanian should partake in, because hey – how often do you get to walk down a four-lane superhighway? It’s also a fascinating look back at what state-of-the-art transportation meant in the 1930s. You can see my complete gallery here, along with two other abandoned turnpike galleries here.