The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 with seven tunnels. Today, only five remain open. Three have been bypassed (Laurel Hill, Rays Hill, and Sideling Hill) and one more (Lehigh) has been built on the northeast extension. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is currently planning to bypass the Allegheny Tunnel, which would result in the first abandoned twin-tube tunnel on the turnpike. But for now, the abandoned stretch between Route 30 and Pumping Station Road is home to 66% of the bypassed tunnels. And they’re open for business.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that although the tunnels themselves are allegedly structurally sound, many of the areas we explored were dangerous. They simply were never meant for pedestrian traffic. They don’t come close to modern park safety standards. The tunnel surfaces are pitted and cracked. Concrete has fallen from the ceiling in numerous places. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. Toxic gases could build up anywhere in the tunnels and you’d never know. The ventillation shaft, drainage pipes, control rooms, and other areas carry a serious risk of lethal injury. I suggest not exploring them. If you choose to go, you are doing so at your own risk, as the area is “officially closed” by the SAC.
With all that being said, the tunnels were the main reason we came out in the first place. Sure, a ten-mile stretch of desolate four-lane highway winding through the woods and mountains of western Pennsylvania was fun. But tunnels? That’s just awesome.
We spotted the first tunnel (Sideling Hill) about 45 minutes after setting out from our midway parking spot. Cold air was rushing out of this tunnel at both ends, thanks to convection from the still-in-tact ventillation and maintenance shaft above the tunnel. The resulting 65-degree breeze was very welcome in the 80-degree weather. It’s as if the tunnel was welcoming its new-found friends.
An inviting rusted staircase to our left invited us up into the upper levels of the control room. Hulking air handlers from 1940 rewarded our curiosity. This picture was actually taken from the eastern portal of the tunnel, which is impossible to access safely. The openings to the right overlook the turnpike to the east, while the wall in the back is comprised of slats to allow free air flow even when the front is closed. Both control rooms (at the west and east portals) were chock full of good stuff like this.
The tunnels are as close to pitch black as you’ll ever want to get. Because of curvature and length, sunlight struggles to reach the interior of the tunnels. As you walk towards the middle, reflections from the distant ceiling create an illusion that the end is just a few hundred feet away. A powerful flashlight is a must-have; you simply can not navigate the tunnel safely without it. The road surface is mostly free of debris, but numerous holes exist. Due to its length and darkness, this tunnel was used for reflectivity tests on various markers and signage over the years. You can still find reflective markers lining portions of the tunnel.
These embankments are all that remain of the former turnpike bridge over Route 30. The bridges on either end of the SAC property were removed in the summer of 2005 to save on maintenance costs. After returning home, we discovered that the mound we were standing on was technically PTC property. Oops – we shouldn’t have been there. The trail you see here represents the western end of the abandoned section. If you start here and hike to the eastern end at Pumping Station Road, you’re looking at a 28-mile round-trip hike. Easily an all-day affair by foot. Luckily for us, the weather was perfect for our outdoor segments.
We hiked east about two miles and encountered the Rays Hill tunnel. Though it was only about half the length of Sideling Hill, it presented some interesting photo opportunities. This is one of my favorite shots from the entire trip (my other favorite being the dark tunnel shot above). Indentations similar to these were present at regular intervals along the tunnel walls, and appeared to correspond with the recessed lighting above. Each indentation had three metal conduits going left, right, and up. I believe these housed transformers for the lighting system. What I don’t understand is why they weren’t placed in the maintenance tunnel.
The eastern Rays Hill portal is locked in a life-and-death struggle with the encroaching forest. The concrete barriers are in an advanced state of decay. Combined with the utter isolation and quietness of the area, this creates a real post-apocalyptic feeling. Despite the wear on the barrier, the tunnel itself and most of the roadways are in much better condition on this side of the tunnel.
Both of the tunnels have a ventilation shaft running above the roadway for the entire length of the tunnel. Air was sucked in by the giant air handlers above the entrances and forced out through the tunnel below. Even though the blowers haven’t been run in decades, the coolness of the tunnel creates convection which creates a nice breeze throughout. 100% environmentally-friendly air conditioning! In addition to providing ventilation, these tunnels served as maintenance shafts and allowed workers to repair the recessed lights safely. Today, the floor contains dozens of holes (large enough to fall through) where the lights once resided. The ceiling starts off at about 9′ high, but gradually drops to about 4′.
Not satisfied with simply walking through the tunnels, we made a point of exploring the upper deck (via the access roads) and control rooms. There’s a fair amount of old equipment still attached to the walls and floors. Some of the stairways have rusted so badly that they’ve become twisted heaps of metal at the bottom of a three-story pit. Others seemed sturdy enough, but we didn’t exactly do a thorough building inspection.
I’m really not sure of the rate at which exposed, unsealed, unmaintained concrete disintegrates. If left unchecked, the freeze cycle of the water penetration will eventually destroy the tunnel. And at some point, all that’s left of the roads will be a vague gravel pathway. Whether that happens five years from now (unlikely) or fifty years from now (prolly) is anyone’s guess. But why wait? Go explore today.