The Old Pennsylvania Turnpike

In my late night YouTube trolling I recently came across something remarkable and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before: an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, replete with dark and scary abandoned tunnels. As with abandoned railroads, abandoned or unfinished highways are equally fascinating to me . This abandoned highway is so strange to see…it’s creepy and thrilling at the same time. Several adventurous souls have made informative and daring videos of them, including the huge air movers that circulated air through the ‘attic’ sections above (if you’ve ever wondered what’s above a tunnel ceiling, now you’ll know!), and all the interior rooms within the portal facades. Some of the videos include old 8mm footage shot by people in the 1950s while driving on the now abandoned section. The whole thing is really just mind-blowing. I’m including this on Rail Trial Touring because the right of way and tunnel bores were originally created for a railroad that never came to be; so it’s being unofficially classified as a rail trail.

Tunnel portal
One of the tunnel portals on the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike (capture from a YouTube video by SeeMoreWillie)

I’ll eventually get out there to ride it myself and make my own photographs, but in the meantime it’s a fascinating subject that I wanted to bring to my fellow rail trail riders’ attention.

History

It all began in the mid-19th Century when New York Central Railroad magnate, William Vanderbilt, wanted to go head to head with the Pennsylvania Railroad by building the South Pennsylvania Railroad. Railroads were big business in this day and competition was stiff, so Vanderbilt allotted 16 million dollars and 5 years to build a competing line. But it didn’t turn out the way he planned. At the end of 5 years the project had consumed more than half the funding and was only 40% complete. JP Morgan, one of the railroad’s primary backers, pulled out. So in 1885 that was it, as the unfinished road bed and half-completed tunnels lay abandoned for 50 years…until the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission came along. Founded in the 1930s, it commissioned the building of the nation’s first limited access super highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to be built along the old South Pennsylvania Railroad right of way.

When the new highway opened on October 1, 1940, it was hailed as a modern marvel. Travelers reveled in the freedom of driving on open highway. But by the 1950s traffic volume had grown to the point that backups at its 7 tunnels became severe. This was due to two lanes of traffic in each direction narrowing down to one (each way) to pass through the tunnels. Traffic jams stretched for up to 5 miles in the summer months. By 1959 efforts by the State to remediate the congestion began in earnest.

Interior of Ray's Hill Tunnel
Interior of Ray’s Hill Tunnel with light visible at the other end 2/3 of a mile away.

After several years of studies (while the traffic continued to pile up) the PTC decided to “twin” some of the tunnels and bypass at least two of them, namely the Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels, thereby abandoning 13 miles of the turnpike. I believe the Laurel Hill Tunnel farther west was also bypassed. After almost 10 years of study and construction the new bypass was completed in 1968 and opened to traffic on November 26, ostensibly in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. The turnpike commission continued to use the old section for maintenance and storage purposes, and for various vehicle tests, snowplow training and even the development of cat’s eye relfectors and rumble strips that are common on highways today. The tunnels even stayed lit and the empty highway patrolled until about 1973, after which the lights were removed and the old roadway became increasingly abandoned. The tunnels were boarded up until 1988.

Current Status

In 2001 the PTC sold the abandoned stretch to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy for $1, with the understanding that they would find an entity to manage the trail, as its creation had already been discussed. That group is Friends of the Pike To Bike, which manages and oversees the trail while ownership has since changed hands to Bedford County so that the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources can give out grants for the trail’s construction and development. The abandoned highway is currently open to cyclists at their own risk (officially closed to the public…kind of weird) and it’s to be called the Old PA Pike. All of this rail trail planning has been in the works for at least a decade although no appreciable work seems to have been done to improve the trail by evidence of the many videos I’ve watched about it on YouTube. But according to the Master Plan Update some work is scheduled to have started this past year, or will in 2020. You can visit the Old PA Pike website here.

That’s it for now until I get out to the trail to ride and make pictures (it’s about 4 hours from my location in Central New Jersey), but I will keep you updated here on Rail Trail Touring. If you like, you can sign up for email updates on the project as I did by using the form at the bottom of the Contact page on the Old PA Pike website. I’ve included a works consulted list below for your further information and reference.


Works Consulted

“Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.” Wikipedia, 27 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abandoned_Pennsylvania_Turnpike.

“About Us.” The Old PA Pike, 27 Dec. 2019, www.theoldpapike.com/about-us/.

“History.” Pike 2 Bike – Abandoned Turnpike Trail, 27 Dec. 2019, www.pike2bike.com/history.html.

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