It starred in films and singers mentioned it in songs. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is the grandfather of the American Interstate Highway System. Film crews came from all over the world and captured different stretches of one of the oldest American highways. It appears in a famous Russian film “Brat 2.” In the middle of the film, a sign “Pennsylvania Welcomes You,” signed “Tom Ridge, Governor” would have been familiar to those who traveled along the turnpike in 1998. In 2009, the producers of Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road” also used the Pennsylvania Turnpike as a backdrop for the film.
“Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you so,
All the way from Jersey, to Oh-Hi-Oh.
Oh how I go for the beautiful mountains, and the fields of grass,
And the friendly road staff, where we even can get gas.
Pennsylvania Turnpike, how I love you,
And when I pay my toll fare, don’t yer love me too.
Now I’m up in Somerset, and snow plowing ain’t come yet,
Pennsylvania Turnpike, I’m stuck on you.”
The vacation season is upon us and as much as no one would want you to get stuck on the turnpike, we know for sure that Pennsylvania drivers will drive along that venerable highway during their long-distance road adventures. They might even sing along, “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you so…” Or maybe not.
In any case, with a song or not, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first roadway in the United States, and the second in the world, after German Autobahn, that had no cross streets, no railroad crossings and no traffic lights over its entire length. It was completed in 1940 and established a milestone and high standard for automobile travel in the United States.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike originally was conceived as a railroad project in the 1880s. William Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, who at the time were building a railroad from Harrisburg west to Pittsburgh, saw the Allegheny Mountains as a barrier for trade. So building a railroad, from an economic standpoint, seemed like a good idea. The railroad had seven tunnels, which at the time was quite special. Yet, the work on the railroad stopped in 1885 because Vanderbilt went bankrupt. Only 50 years later, the work resumed with a shifted focus and mission.
In 1910, with growth of the American auto industry and a growing clout of the automobile lobby, a decision was made to convert the abandoned railroad into a motorway. The implementation of the plan took some time, though. In 1937, the governor of Pennsylvania created the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. President Franklin Roosevelt fully supported the initiative; he saw the opportunity to use the turnpike project to lower unemployment through the Works Project Administration, one of the most important agencies established as part of The New Deal.
When the construction plan was completed in 1938, 155 construction companies and 15,000 workers from 18 states were employed by the Turnpike Commission.
Today, in its sixth decade of operation the Pennsylvania Turnpike is one of the safest highways in the U.S. Also, it has changed significantly from what it was in 1940. The original 160-mile route has been expanded to 514 miles and is carrying 156.2 million vehicles per year at a toll of 10.6 cents per mile. Get your E-ZPasses ready.
“Oh, Pennsylvania Turnpike, how I love you,
And when I pay my toll fare, don’t yer love me too…”
Safe travels this summer, folks! Enjoy the ride!