- Historic Sites
The Road To The Future
Fifty years ago the builders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike completed America’s first superhighway—and helped determine the shape of travel to come
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
Vanderbilt’s $15 million syndicate put surveyors to work conducting one of the most exhaustive railroadline location studies ever undertaken in the United States, covering nearly 1,0OC square miles with some 5,000 miles of survey lines. Beginning in the fall of 1883, the first of about twenty-five hundred laborers went to work blasting nine mile-long tunnels, carving out deep cuts, and building huge earthen fills. Vanderbilt’s line crossed the mountains at an elevation some 300 feet higher than the Pennsylvania’s, but it had two advantages: It was about 30 miles shorter between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh than the 249-mile Pennsy, and its route was a highly refined one.
The right-of-way was laid out using roadbed and tunnels from Carnegie and Vanderbilt’s unfinished 188Os railroad.
Engineering News and American Contract Journal published a report on October 4, 1884, titled “An Editorial Jaunt over the Line of the South Pennsylvania Railroad.” An excerpt reads: “One of the striking features . . . presented to the mind of the engineer in considering the adopted location is that it is a ‘summit line’ for a large portion of the way and instead of following the devious windings of the mountain streams as does its older brother, the Pennsylvania Railroad, it cuts through the mountain ranges which cross it at right angles and seeks the crests of the water sheds. This is so much the case that through the region between the Tuscarora Mountain and Sideling Hill, and again between the Allegheny Mountain and the Chestnut Ridge . . . we failed to discover a single water-way passing under the road bed for which a 12 ft. opening was not more than ample. There is not an iron bridge on these crest lines for more than 40 miles. This simple fact speaks for itself as a measure of economy and locating skill.”
But when the line was about 60 percent completed with less than a year’s work remaining, the financier J. Pierpont Morgan crafted a truce between Vanderbilt and the Pennsylvania. Morgan had gotten warning signals from London investors who considered the South Pennsylvania project emblematic of the wildcat speculation in American railroads. Its completion, they told Morgan, could only hurt investors in both companies and, in the end, all the railroads in the United States.
Some $10 million had been poured into the project, but it was shut down in September 1885 and became popularly known in hindsight as Vanderbilt’s Folly. None of the tunnels were completed all the way through, but excavation had been conducted from both ends of all of them, and in one the crews were only 394 feet apart—and could hear each other—when the project was halted.
Civil engineers who had worked on the South Pennsylvania took the cancellation as a personal affront to their profession, and this epitaph appeared in the final edition of South Pennsylvania Rail Road Transit , a journal they had produced for their own consumption during the height of the construction activity: “And here for the time being, and probably for a long time to come is smothered the best line of railroad between the Ohio Valley and the Atlantic that has ever been or can be projected, built or operated.”
Since almost nothing is forever, as early as 1910 a proposal was floated, albeit tongue in cheek, to convert the roadbed and tunnels into a high-speed motoring boulevard illuminated by electric lights. A few snippets of the right-of-way were used briefly for short-line and logging-railroad operations, but nothing substantive occurred until the Depression threw thousands of Pennsylvanians out of work.
With an epidemic of unemployment, each state government was given the task of searching for projects to take advantage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal employment programs. In Pennsylvania that job fell to the State Planning Board, which made an inventory of economic and social indicators and land-use patterns. An employee of the board, Victor LeCoq, and a trucking lobbyist, William A. Sutherland, discussed the idea of reusing the roadbed and tunnels for a highway with Clifford S. Patterson, an engineer who had just been elected to the state legislature from western Pennsylvania. Early in 1935 Patterson introduced a resolution in the legislature calling for a feasibility study. Officials of the federal Works Progress Administration liked the idea, and the state secretary of highways, Warren Van Dyke, applied for, and won, a WPA survey grant.