Pennsylvania Weirdness

Unstoppable underground mine fire: Check.
All-concrete ghost town: Check.
Worst commercial nuclear accident on US soil: Check.
Deserted mental hospitals: Check.
Shoe house: Check.

If you live in, travel through, or have ever even heard of Pennsylvania, you’ve no doubt heard one of the extremely bizarre stories that make up this state. I’m pretty sure that scientific studies have been conducted that show we’re only slightly less odd than Maine, and that’s probably only because we don’t have Stephen King. But just when I thought I had heard (if not seen) it all, along comes the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Since its construction in the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has been a model of speed, efficiency, and modernization road*. And since the late 1960s, it’s also been a perfect example of what happens when government projects lack foresight and planning. Take, for example, the fact that there was originally no speed limit. Drivers could go as fast as they wanted from Pittsburgh to Carlisle, using the then-apparently-new concept of “the passing lane” to bypass slower drivers. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, the large mountains that run through our great state made this a difficult prospect. One proposed solution was to go over and around the mountains, with the roadway graded so as to avoid the then-much-worse inclines of Routes 22 and 30. This would allow drivers to keep their high speed, but would add considerable distance to the trip. Another proposal was to stabilize some 19th-century railroad tunnels and shoot drivers through the mountains. This would keep the distance down, but would add considerable cost. In typical government fashion, a compromise was made. The Turnpike would bore straight through the mountains, but would drop to one lane in either direction.

Take four lanes of 100+ mph traffic, throw in some 50- to 70-mph trucks, and compress it all down to two lanes.

Needless to say, that didn’t work out very well. By the mid-1950s, not even 20 years after the Turnpike had been completed, the PA Turnpike Commission began looking into ways to alleviate the massive bottlenecks that were forming at each of the Turnpike’s seven tunnels. It was decided that some tunnels (such as the Lehigh Tunnel) would have a second two-lane tunnel bored out in parallel, while others would be bypassed with exposed roadway. It is these bypassed tunnels that have caught my attention.

If you’ve ever driven west on 76, you’ve no doubt noticed the Mount Everest of Pennsylvania. It immediately follows the Breezewood Turnpike plaza, which (if I’m not mistaken, as I really don’t pay attention to the names) is unique in that it’s accessible from both sides of the Turnpike. It’s here where a ten-mile stretch of abandoned Turnpike begins.

In 2001, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy purchased this ancient stretch of the Turnpike from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the whopping sum of $1. The SAC has since “opened” the abandoned stretch for quasi-tourism; their incredibly-bad website states that the area is officially closed, but encourages non-motorized visitors at their own risk. And it looks awesome. The Sideling Hill and Rays Hill tunnels are fully accessible, and engineering studies have supposedly shown that the tunnels are in no danger of collapse (not bad, considering that the concrete is over 70 years old).

This map shows a hybrid satellite image of the area in question. You can see the Sideling Hill tunnel, the longer of the two, in the northeast corner. If you’d like to see the images without my markups, try this link. The abandoned turnpike is that unmarked road to the west of Route 915. It disappears into the mountain and re-emerges just east of 76, near the center of the snapshot. A nearby stream creates the illusion that the old Turnpike continues above-ground between 76 and 915, but look closely and you’ll see that this isn’t the case. This link shows the Rays Hill tunnel, almost exactly parallel to and just north of current-day 76.

With the land solely in possession of the Conservancy, visitation is both possible and encouraged. I’m going to take a road trip in the coming weeks — probably once this heat wave breaks. Ten miles is a bit of a walk (that’s about five hours round-trip at a brisk pace without stopping), but I’m sure my GT and I will make short work of the worst of it. I’ll also be returning in the fall, because I’m sure the photo ops will be incredible.

We may not have the rampant-but-fascinating urban decay of Detroit, but what Pennsylvania lacks in quantity, we make up for in general weirdness.

* – In all fairness, the PA Turnpike isn’t bad. In fact, it’s easily one of the best highways in the country — aside from what passes for an interchange in Philly (such as the I-76/276/376/476/576/676/776/876/976/900/800/888/877/866/81/11/15/F interchange somewhere in the vicinity of Valley Forge).  Its projects are typically ahead of schedule and either on- or under-budget, traffic is usually reasonable, and road conditions are usually great.  It wouldn’t be fair to write up such a long post without recognizing the PA Turnpike as the grandfather of our modern-day Interstate Highway System.