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
Beginning in January 1936, engineers and surveyors again swarmed in southern Pennsylvania. They found the Vanderbilt roadbed and uncompleted tunnels in surprisingly good condition. The idea gained momentum, and on May 21, 1937, Gov. George H. Earle signed Act 211 into law, authorizing creation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The act gave the commission broad powers to construct and operate a turnpike, impose tolls, and issue revenue bonds but did not award it a dime of state money. The state’s constitution prohibited incurring more than $1 million of debt without a referendum, and the estimated cost of construction was on the order of $60 to $70 million. The commission’s task was to raise that amount in private capital or federal funding—no easy job even in normal times, and much harder during a depression—and build the road. A $60 million bond offering in early 1938, received coolly on Wall Street, was canceled.
The reason was that although investors had seen and backed many bond issues for major toll facilities (this was, after all, the era of the Holland Tunnel and the Golden Gate Bridge), they had difficulty envisioning the equivalent of a 160-mile-long toll bridge. Nobody, it seemed, argued with the engineering concept, but neither did many people believe that a market existed to make the road financially self-supporting. With the clamor of the European conflict growing ever louder in Washington, however, President Roosevelt became convinced of the highway’s military value for keeping steel moving, and he authorized funding through two New Deal agencies: a $29.25 million outright grant from the Public Works Adw-10 ministration and a $40.8 million purchase of bonds- in effect, a loan- by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
Meanwhile, engineers and others kept busy out in the field. The state High-way Department provided interim technical support, with the understanding that it would be reimbursed when funding materialized, and the Turnpike Commission awarded a contract for the removal of water that had seeped into the tunnels.
Engineers began to map out a highway alignment that generally followed the Vanderbilt roadbed, using six of the nine tunnels and about 40 miles of the graded roadbed. (At Allegheny Tunnel the old excavation was considered unstable and unsafe, and a new tunnel was laid out 85 feet south of the original.) Much as a military strategist might chart an invasion, the engineers developed these plans as a contingency, ready to be uncoiled when the funding became available.
When final approval came from Washington, on October 10, 1938, the commission had to move with lightning speed to comply with a federal requirement that the project be under construction by the end of that very month. The preliminary engineering work hadn’t been in vain: just four days later a contract was advertised for site grading for a 10-mile stretch of roadway in the gently rolling farmland west of Harrisburg. Bids were opened on October 26, a contract awarded that day, and groundbreaking held the next day. Roads and Streets , a trade magazine, commented, “It should be noted that only four days were allotted for the completion of plans, the design of structures, the preparation of contract documents, and the actual advertising of the first contract. . . .”
The highway had to be completed in twenty months yet meet design and safety standards unprecedented in the United States.
From the start the commission chairman, Walter A. Jones, a millionaire oil executive from Pittsburgh who was a confidant of President Roosevelt, exhibited a stubborn faith in the concept. His conviction kept him pursuing financing for month after month in the face of ridicule and well-meaning advice that he was aiming too high. Once the project was set in motion, however, there seemed to be no single personality or guiding figure energizing the push to build the turnpike. Increasingly Jones’s health began to fail, and he was out of the public eye for weeks at a time. When in August 1940 a caravan of VPs got an inaugural look at the road on the eve of its opening, Jones was too sick to attend. (The entourage, which included U.S. senators and representatives, at times grew in length to ninety-three cars.)
As Jones’s energies waned, a group of engineers and technicians who almost instinctively knew the value of teamwork tackled the job. The immensity of the task and the shortness of deadline, combined with the certainty that it was a privilege to work on the nation’s first superhighway, may have kept egos in check. In any event, Samuel W. Marshall of Norristown, who had been the state’s chief highway engineer, became the turnpike’s chief engineer. At the time of groundbreaking, his staff numbered 115 engineers. One year later it had ballooned to more than 1,100. “It was, in my opinion,” he wrote in a paper presented to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “the fastest moving, hardest hitting engineering organization with which I have ever been associated.”