Pennsylvania Turnpike

Pennsylvania Turnpike
Category Exploration Date Status Province / State Country
Infrastructure Abandoned Pennsylvania United States
Submitted by Mike on Wed, 07/16/2008 - 15:15

Looking from an overpass to a sideroad.

It was early in the day, and already becoming quite warm. We had each brought a large bottle of Gatorade with us and felt quite prepared and excited for what lay ahead. Two tunnels carved into the hills beyond. Tunnels which, for a brief period of time, allowed traffic a faster, easier route through the beautiful state of Pennsylvania. Its inherent flaws, however, started the clock ticking to its eventual closure.

We scrambled up the side of the embankment to reach the level of the former highway and stepped over the guard-rail. Initially, we looked left and saw the curve of the road, already beginning to crack and sprout greenery. Looking right, we saw exactly what we were here to see.

Overgrown road leading toward the tunnel entrance.

As we neared the opening of the tunnel, we noticed a small group of people sitting on the ground, clearly enjoying the day. We exchanged greetings, but eagerly passed them to enter our true reason for being here.

Many of the tunnels throughout the Pennsylvania Turnpike actually began as railroad tunnels in 1883. That project, for various reasons, lost interest and was discontinued just two years later. Fast-forward to the stock market crash and subsequent depression of 1929 and into the '30's. The idea of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was made real as one of many bootstrap make-work projects by the government to inject money into the economy. It was revolutionary, using concepts developed by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors and presented at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. The design included new features we take for granted today like divided highways, controlled access ramps, and higher speed limits. In fact, at its opening, the Pennsylvania Turnpike didn't have speed limits. That feature, at least, would soon be considered a bad idea and changed.

Old, stylized photo of the entrance of the tunnel.

We walked along the tunnel, and I have to admit to a general unease. I was keenly aware of the tons of rock and dirt above my head, held in place by only a relatively thin concrete barrier that hadn't been maintained since the year of my birth. That wasn't a pleasant thought. I pushed it aside and focused instead on the more interesting details. The tunnel wasn't long enough to lose sight of the far side, so a bit of light was always present. Clearly our cameras were able to make better use of it than we were. The echos as we spoke, even in hushed tones, were quite impressive and of course gave way to us making louder noises, whistles and the like. All too soon, however, we found ourselves at the far entrance, letting our eyes adjust to the bright sunlight.

The debate, at this point, was whether or not to continue on to the next tunnel. I was quite enthusiastic, though my two companions were somewhat less so. Being as wonderful as they are, however, they agreed that we would continue on with a lengthy hike to find and explore the next tunnel. What never really impressed itself upon us, however, was that we were looking at close to 4 miles, or just over 6 km.

Divided highway curving away from the tunnel.

As we walked along the highway, certain things began to impress themselves on us. First, the day was getting much warmer. In fact, it was becoming disturbingly hot with little to no breeze. Second, we had brought a lot less fluids with us than perhaps we should have given the distance and the heat. Finally, as we watched a family happily pass us in the other direction, we realized that we should have rented bikes...

Again, such thoughts were put aside, at least for now, and we continued on. Much like children in the back seat of countless cars that had passed here, we rounded each curve wondering if we were there yet. Having drained our meager supply of Gatorade, Alex, the nimblest of our party, slid down the embankment to a nearby stream to refill our bottles. I didn't trust this water for drinking, but it was nice to pour a little bit over our heads every so often as we trekked along.

Finally, we spotted the entrance to the second tunnel and took advantage of the shade it offered. In addition, its wind-funneling effect created a bit of a breeze that also helped to cool us. We explored around the opening a bit and quickly discovered that we were able to access the ventilation equipment above the motorway.

Ventilation fan inside the mechanical area of the tunnel.

We decided to walk the length of this tunnel as well since it was longer than the one previous. The light at the far end was so dim as to be almost imperceptible, and this gave us a true feeling of the gloom that surrounded us. One very positive aspect, however, was the geothermal effect of the air that the tunnel was funneling through. It cooled the stiffening breeze so much that it almost felt cold. When we did finally reach the far end, we were reluctant to leave and, in fact, threw in the towel at this point and began our trip back. Sticking to the depths of the tunnel now seemed quite preferable.

The narrowness of this passage that now brought us refreshing cool air was, in fact, its downfall. As the Turnpike became increasingly popular and the volumes of traffic grew, bottlenecks began to be identified. While most of the highway was two lanes in each direction, the tunnels were only single-lane. This meant that two lanes of traffic were forced to merge at each tunnel. This led to backups, congestion, flared tempers, and general discontent.

Some of the tunnels could be widened. A few, including the two through which we were now travelling, could not. It was more feasible to stretch the highway in a different direction, bypassing these tunnels, and resulting in their closure and abandonment by 1968.

Tunnel interior.

The distance between the tunnels seemed to have grown substantially on the return trip. The heat was even more oppressive than before, and we were that much longer without additional fluids. Pouring water over our heads was certainly helping, but not as much as a drink would have. Each corner only gave us a view of a stretch of highway with no end in sight, and our pace was slowing. Surely we were almost there.

Finally, the first tunnel came into view again, with its welcoming shade. We stopped for another break before passing through to return to the truck. In total, our walk was almost 12 miles (20 km) in total and we were ready to call it quits. We drove to the nearest town, found a motel with good air conditioning, ordered a pizza and holed up for almost 36 hours before continuing on our vacation. We joked about going back and doing it again, but we now use this experience as a yardstick by which we measure the difficulty of almost every subsequent place we've explored.


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