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“Dream Highway” – The Pennsylvania Turnpike 75th Anniversary

The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially opened to both motorists and truckers on October 1, 1940, at 12:01 AM.  It was one of the first limited access “Super Highway” in the country. The thoroughfare initially was 160 miles in length between Middlesex, just west of Harrisburg, and Irwin, east of Pittsburgh.

Since this year is the 75th anniversary of the Turnpike, it is the perfect time to cover the new high-speed alternative to US Route 30 that was part of the original Lincoln Highway. This route began back in 1881 when William H. Vanderbilt joined with Andrew Carnegie and other Pittsburgh capitalists to build the South Pennsylvania Railroad between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. All work stopped on the project in 1885 and it later it was nicknamed “Vanderbilt’s Folly.”


  •                     Ray’s Tunnel under construction in south central Pennsylvania during the 1880s.

Fifty years later in 1935, the Pennsylvania Legislature began to explore using this route, which was 60 percent finished with six of the seven tunnels completed. On Oct. 27, 1938, construction began after funding was arranged by State and Federal bonds and funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA).

The PWA funding stipulated that the that the new roadway needed to be substantially completed by July 1, 1940, only nine months after the ground breaking. A small army was soon gathered that consisted of more than 15,000 workers supervised by over 100 contractors and subcontractors from many of the northeastern states. Together they finished the construction of the highway’s 160 miles, completed six tunnels, and built one new one along with service plazas, and administrative and maintenance structures.

After the “Dream Highway” officially opened nearly 27,000 cars and trucks traveled on the new roadway on its opening weekend.

View a very interesting 2:25 minute color video courtesy of Robert Martens. It was filmed by his Grandfather Gustave Martens with a 16mm movie camera and shows the Turnpike tunnel entrances and exits in 1953. In it you will also be able see a number of cars and trucks that were on the road at that time. Later on as a realignment of part of the “Dream Highway” was accomplished, three of the tunnels were no longer used.

View seven more images (below), all photos are courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.


  •                        A steam shovel working at clearing and opening up a part of the new roadway.


  • Surveyors at the entrance to the Tuscarora Tunnel, circa 1938. The structure was one of six uncompleted South Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels that were finished and modernized for the turnpike.


  •  Ray’s Hill Tunnel, one of three original Turnpike tunnels and has since been abandoned and bypassed.


  •    Irwin toll booths where motorists and truckers waited for the opening at 12:01 AM, October 1, 1940.


  •                                                  The Irvin Interchange toll booths on opening day.


  •                                                        The Blue Mountain Toll Booth, 1940.


  •                                        A crossover bridge on the Turnpike photographed during 1942.


  •                A pre-war speed limit sign along the thoroughfare, it initially was opened without one.


  •                                  Irwin toll booths of the western end of the Turnpike near Pittsburgh.


  •        Early Howard Johnson’s Food Counter, circa 1940 at the Carlisle Howard Johnson’s restaurant.


  •                                     This map was first offered on Oct. 1 1941, at the service plazas.

29 responses to ““Dream Highway” – The Pennsylvania Turnpike 75th Anniversary

  1. The film was quite interesting in itself. From the glimpses I got, they were traveling in a ’49-’51 Mercury.

    • Yes, it’s really great to be taken back to that point in time heading down the turnpike and going through the tunnels. I have not been through most of them in ten years, but I will pay more attention next time.

  2. The tunnel near Carlisle was a popular destination ride for the Harley Owners Group. Thirty or more bikes make a heckuva racket rumbling through. The Turnpike Commission frowned on it. It was fun while it lasted. The road maps of the era have stylized artist renderings of picnic lunches in the median. Imagine.

  3. the coupe is a 1931 Franklin Airman, series 15 model 153 deluxe. It was the only year that had cowl lights (parking lights) as standard equipment. ( In 1928 cowl lights were accessory equipment.) Body was built by Walker of Amesbury, Mass. as were all production bodies for Franklin. This car also has accessory side mounted spare tires, tire covers and chrome strips on the rear of the front fenders. Top was of padded leather. It is a fairly rare body style for that year as not many were sold. It looks to be in fine shape for a car that was 9 years old at the time. Wheelbase was 132 inches. And there you have more information then you will ever need or wanted to know!

      • Chuck Bierlein – very late 20’s Franklins are 55 mph cars and 30’s Franklins are 60 mph cars – and there is plenty of power to pass for short term sprints. A Speedster series and I believe some of the open cars had better rear axle gearing and that adds a few mph and improves overall driving. And, yes, when properly set up they do even better in the confidence area, though horsepower and gearing is horsepower and gearing. Keep in mind – “where were these people going ?” – no real quality limited access roads outside of LA, Penn Turnpike, and ….. And, trains, trolleys, street cars, inter-urban, buses, and …… still rulled.

        Want to drive something exciting – try a Franklin V-12

        • “Keep in mind – where were these people going ?”

          You’re leaving out that the Sunday drive was a ritual for many families in the days before TV. They weren’t going anywhere – just down the road apiece and back again.

  4. Walt… perfect amount of info. Thanks. One more question. I’m assuming with decent tires and alignment this would roll out fine at the 70 mph limit. Am I correct?

    • I remember my dad telling me that as soon as the turnpike opened drivers started pushing the limits of their cars. Many of the of the vehicles with babbitted rod bearings could not withstand the extended high speeds that the Turnpike allowed and ended up with knocking and burnt rod bearings.

      • My Father made a similar comment about the limits of cars of that period. He recalled seeing more than a few overheated cars, and shredded tires on the Penn. Turnpike even after the war.

    • 70 mph for a short term sprint as John commented. I owned a 1931 Franklin of the same series for 45 years but with a much heavier body by Derham of Rosemant, Pa. I drove my car a total of about 50,000 miles. It liked the 55-60 mph speed range, and was a very comfortable car to drive for long periods of time.

  5. Thanks, I enjoyed the film too, although, a little choppy, and what powered the camera? Anyway, in the lead photo, it looks like a Mack , with a Dodge at the Irvin plaza and a Chevy(?) going under the bridge. I tried to see what the car carrier at 1:18 was carrying. Looked like new Mercury’s. And the trucks stopped at the side. Many times, it was to let the motors or brakes cool down, as I remember, going on the turnpike as a kid with my folks, there were some pretty steep hills. Also, note the “Caterpillar Diesel” dozer, which may be a new D8, as it has hydaulic’s, as opposed to cable lift. (not sure when hydraulics came out) Great pics when American’s were just starting to explore the country by car, and we all took the turnpike at one time or another.

    • “Thanks, I enjoyed the film too, although, a little choppy, and what powered the camera?”

      Cameras had a clock mechanism with a winder on the side. My old Bell and Howell could only do about two minutes of footage before needing a rewind.

  6. Early Sports Car Club of America members had an unusual use for some sections of the Turnpike. They timed themselves between some of the tunnels and sent in the results to Sports Car, the club’s magazine, which published them. Naturally, quite a competition ensued, at least until “wiser” heads prevailed.

  7. Thank you for this glimpse into the past have been on Turnpike many times. Have always loved riding through the tunnels and enjoying the view along the way.

  8. Such a Treasure, We are actually able to see what others saw so many years ago.. This is my type of history!!

    Thank You!

    • You’re right about that and it is quite interesting. I read an article about that and it was very interesting. And top secret, they can back a trailer into it and unload without anyone seeing the car.

  9. In the late 40’s and early 50’s our family made several trips from Maine to the Dayton, OH, area to visit friends and relatives. I remember waiting with all the impatience of a 10 year old on our first trip waiting until we got to the Penn Tpke so we could compare it with the (shorter) Maine Turnpike that we lived near. I think that the Penn Tpke was more interesting mainly due to the tunnels.
    It’s interesting to note that back then traveling down the Maine Pike and, I think, U S 1 thru NH and MA to Boston where we pickep 20 west to 15 and the Berlin pike thru CT, into New York City. We took 22 to Harrisburg and picked up the Pennsy at that point . We stayed overnight in New Stanton. It is my recollection that it took us about 12 hours to cover the journey – about the same as about 10 years back when I was headed to Tennessee using the interstate.

  10. I can remember the good old days when our family (a total of twelve kids) at most eight of us would pile in our ’60 Plymouth station wagon and make the trek from Bucks county to Clio Mich. to visit the other half of the family. All of the Michigan half worked for GM.

    And how about riding in the back of a ’46 Chrysler business coupe from Bucks county to Pittsburgh. Yeah your right, there is no back seat in a business coupe. Plenty of floor though for a 6 year old.

  11. The earliest segments of the Merritt Parkway ( CT ) were opened as early as 1938., so in a way it predates the PA Turnpike. It has no tunnels as far as I know, but many of the overpasses were beautifully designed.

  12. If you yearn for a cruise on that Turnpike but you are in California, then a very similar scene can be experienced on the PASADENA FREEWAY , AKA: The ARROYO SECO PARKWAY, complete with very similar tunnels, going toward Pasadena. It opened in 1939, (same as me), “Going through the tunnels” was part of returning from picking up A Greyhound Bus Driver at the Transcontinenetal Depot Service Yard, so he could be with his family for a weekend. His wife was my Baby Sitter as my Mom was making Bombers at Lockheed Aircraft . Your image of that tunnel brought back that memory. Thank you. Edwin.

  13. I once covered the 106 miles from Harrisburgh to Willow Grove in 52 minutes. Never went below 100MPH and did most of it at 120 + MPH Who needs speed limits?

  14. One of the highlights of the trip on the PA Tpk was a stop at a Howard Johnson ( Ho-Jo) for a meal. They were at all the rest stops. It was not fast food; it was a full service, sit down meal at a table with linens. Big deal for us kids. All of them had the same menu. So we usually knew what we wanted beforehand. Also they had 33(?) flavors of ice cream.

    Also, I seem to remember that the original toll on the pike was one penny per mile.

  15. I don’t like change but like a lot of government bureaucratizes, the turnpike need to be done a way with.
    It was originally going to be a toll road until payed off. The basters that run the thing, keep on creating more
    road, to keep the authority in place…. The cost to drive the road far exceed the cost of living over the years.
    DISBAND the turnpike NOW!

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