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.