The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike; A Road to Nowhere

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.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 2      Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 9

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.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 6      Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 4

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.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 1

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.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike      Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 8 Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 7      Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 5 Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike 3

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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13 Responses to The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike; A Road to Nowhere

  1. Pingback: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike; A Road to ...

  2. Mike says:

    I’m going here in the spring. Several youtube videos offer a tour of these tunnels.

  3. Jeremy Millslagle says:

    Where exactly in Pa is this located?

  4. Ruby McCormick says:

    My grandfather helped build these tunnels. He was on the blasting crew. He would be gone for the summer months while my grandmother took care of the family. I used to have a pay stub from his time working there. I must look these up. I’m fairly familiar with Breezewood.

  5. Gary Stanullwich says:

    Are the photos on your website considered Public Domain, or is there a royalty fee for using them ?

    Thanks

  6. Tom Aitken says:

    Thanks for a great post. This section of highway is about an hour from where I live, and I’m very intrigued by it. You’ve convinced me that I should go!

  7. chance dufour says:

    are there guided tours through the abandoned highway?

  8. matthew kreider says:

    About fifteen years ago I went with a friend to visit this stretch on TP. at that time it was not open to the public and was frequently patrolled by rangers. My friends father wrote history books of PA Travel and the turnpikes. As a retirement gift he was allowed to bring his family to this section of TP to take a tour. I look back on this day fondly. The tunnels actually have another tunnel above them for ventilation and air flow. I have walked the top tunnels on both Sideling Hill and Rays Hill. It was pitch black and me being 6’3″ was bent over most of the walk. The ceilings are quite low. When we came out we had turn black from head to toe in the filth and residual exhaust from vehicles of days gone by. I had a lot of great fun that day.

  9. WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE INCLUDE A MAP OF THESE LOCATIONS !!

    ARRGH !!

  10. spooky says:

    Thank you for posting this! I love the area and have been interested in it since well before I finally made it there from Kentucky. I wrote a post about it as a sort of an introduction to the online history I am writing about the abandoned turnpike. There’s still time to share scans of newspapers and any early online sources. I feel like an archivist, the trail’s online history is eroding faster than it is.

    https://thrillseekingbehavior.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/abandoned-pennsylvania-turnpike-part-1/

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