In the mountains of southern Pennsylvania, there’s a 13-mile stretch of highway where the rules of the road don’t apply. You can change lanes without signaling. Heck, you can do it without even looking. Of course, you won’t be in an automobile, and neither will anyone else, because all will be on the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.
No through traffic has traveled this four-lane road in more than forty years. The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike has encountered the rare military training or engineering test since its closure in the 1960s, but the haunting skeleton of a highway has been the dominion of hikers, bikers and Mother Nature ever since. There are a couple easy points of access (Tannery Road at one end, Pump Station Road at the other), but the turnpike remains a use-at-your-own-risk “Pike2Bike” trail overseen by the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opened a bypass of this part of the highway in 1968 and all the old infrastructure–pavement, guardrails, masonry and the roadway thingamajigs common travelers recognize but may not know the proper name for–has been left to the heavy hand of the sometimes-merciless south-central Pennsylvania elements ever since.
The blacktop road surface is crumbling and overgrown with weeds. Medians sprout trees that have long since graduated saplinghood. Where a roadside service plaza once stood–a wayside that included an infamous orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s–the forest floor is tiled. And then there’s the ubiquitous graffiti, the handiwork of vandals who’ve chosen to make a mark on this world by making a mark on this world.
Graffiti artists: wordsmiths, all
It’s hard to imagine that this was once a showcase road, the crown jewel of highway construction. The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s 1940 completion was a significant achievement in a country where roads were narrow, winding and vulnerable to bad weather. I first learned of the turnpike’s importance from Earl Swift’s The Big Roads; The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. (Here it is on Amazon.) Swift’s work is worth a read. In it he writes:
“Twenty-two months after work [on the turnpike] started, a convoy of congressmen, reporters, and government bigwigs…drove the turnpike from end to end. The party marveled at its easy grades, which never exceeded 3 percent, and its straightaways, which at one point stretched for a dozen miles, and its broad, banked curves. The openness of the landscaped right of way, the long sight distances made possible by a roadway seventy-eight feet wide and cleared of obstructions, was a striking new experience; so were the tunnels, which together were nearly seven miles long.”
In fact, those tunnels, a source of awe for turnpike admirers in 1940, are now by far the creepiest part of the abandoned stretch. Three of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s original seven tunnels were victims of bypass. Two of them, Rays Hill Tunnel and Sideling Hill Tunnel, are on this deserted part. Words fall short as adequate descriptors of the teeth-chattering spookiness of these black chasms. Gusts of wind howl at the tunnels’ mouths like funeral music. The air the tubes spew is dank, cold, musty, reminiscent of a cave’s breath.
It’s possible to ride all the way through these tunnels–there are no cave-ins or other obstructions–provided you have a good flashlight. I vowed to make it through the shortest, the two-thirds-of-a-mile Rays Hill Tunnel, despite that I’d be pedaling it alone. About two hundred yards in, the eeriness shot holes in my foolhardy plan and I’m somewhat ashamed to say I turned tail.
The tunnels were in large part why the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission forsook this part of the highway. Anyone who encounters traffic funnels on a regular basis (as I do, living in the richly-tunneled Hampton Roads region of Virginia) can appreciate what a headache a four-lanes-down-to-two traffic scheme brings on.
By the 1960s, backups at the turnpike’s tunnels sometimes stretched to five miles. Several of the tubes were expanded. Rays Hill and Sideling Hill were simply bypassed. At the latter you can hear the white-noise droning of the modern Pennsylvania Turnpike just uphill–the inheritor of a legacy of first-rate, high-speed roads begun in part by the humble, abandoned highway just below.