To most of us, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is just some ordinary road that costs too much to travel on and screws with your morning commute if there’s an accident. But look a little closer and it reveals an interesting history. Well, interesting for a road.
For a little background on the Pennsylvania Turnpike itself, we have to look back to before the United States entered World War II. Opened on October 1, 1940, between Carlisle and Irwin, the turnpike was the first long-distance controlled-access in the United States. The four-lane highway consisted of seven tunnels over a stretch of 160 miles. The road also had no enforced speed limit when it opened except for the tunnels. Sadly, to the dismay of dads everywhere who love to shave minutes off their travel times, a speed limit of 65 mph was implemented in 1956. Unlike today where there is an individual tunnel used for eastbound and westbound travel when the tunnels were first constructed only one was bored at each location. That means the four-lane highway would have to merge into a two-lane road through each tunnel. Naturally, this would cause bottlenecks at each location when traffic was heavy. Eventually, the turnpike expanded east and west during the ’50s and ’60s to create the route we are all familiar with today.
As traffic levels increased, the bottlenecks at the two-lane tunnels became a huge problem. In the late 1950s, the turnpike commission decided to either build a second bore at each tunnel or a four-lane bypass at each location. Four of the seven tunnels received the second bore while the other three were bypassed entirely. The Laurel Hill Tunnel was the first to be bypassed, and the new section of highway opened in 1964. The Rays Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels were also bypassed by a 13-mile new highway, as was a service plaza. The new highway was opened in 1968, at which time the old alignment was decommissioned.
Now, what exactly did they do with vacated portions of the turnpike and tunnels? Well, nothing really. While the Laurel Hill Tunnel has been used for everything from road material storage to high-speed racecar aerodynamic testing, the Rays Hill and Sideling Hill Tunnels just sit dormant. After 40+ years of no upkeep, the 3,532-foot long Rays Hill Tunnel and 6,800-foot long Sideling tunnel are in surprisingly good shape. They may look a bit rough, but they are still relatively structurally sound. The road has been used by PennDOT to test rumble strips, the military to train soldiers, and has even been featured in several post-apocalyptic movies.
For the weekend urban explorer, the abandoned 13-mile stretch between the Sideling Hill Service Plaza and the Breezewood Interchange can be traversed by bicycle or on foot, and it is all perfectly legal. Plus, it’s the only portion of the turnpike where you don’t have to pay a toll. Sure, it may be marked as “proceed at your own risk”, but that is half the fun.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons. https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/pennsylvania/pa-abandoned-turnpike