- 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
The first Sunday the road was open, miles-long traffic jams formed at every tollbooth and didn’t ease until 10:30 P.M.
The synergy of all these elements was summarized by Charles M. Noble, a turnpike engineer who wrote in Civil Engineering , in July 1940: “Unlike the existing highway systems of the United States, in which design standards fluctuate every few miles, depending upon the date of construction, the Turnpike will have the same design characteristics throughout its entire 160mile length. Every effort has been directed towards securing uniform and consistent operating conditions for the motorist. In fact the design was attacked from the viewpoint of motor-car operation and the human frailty of the driver, rather than from that of the difficulty of the terrain and methods of construction.”
Before the opening of the turnpike, there were only a few places in the country where this concept could be visualized. One was the nation’s first parkway—the Bronx River Parkway, in New York City and Westchester County, which had been built in the 1920s as a fourlane limited-access highway but was only 15 miles long and was considered a 35mile-an-hour road. The other was in a miniature diorama at the General Motors Futurama exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, it purported to show American life in 1960 and was uncannily accurate in its depiction of multiple-lane high-speed expressways.
When the turnpike finally opened, on Tuesday, October 1, 1940, neither the commission nor the motoring public knew quite what to expect. The bravest motorists reported covering the 160 miles in a shade over two hours, with no interference by state troopers. Toll attendants, when asked what the speed limit was, responded, “Drive carefully.” The fare was $1.50 from end to end for passenger cars, or roughly a penny a mile. Truck tolls were higher, based on weight, but the method of determining the rate was primitive: It was up to the attendant’s visual inspection. For the first few days traffic was somewhat heavy, obviously augmented by one-time curiosity seekers, but not uncontrollable. Then on October 6, the first Sunday, miles-long traffic jams formed at every tollbooth, as fall foliage and sunny weather attracted thousands upon thousands of motorists to the brand-new road. Attendants ran out of tickets and hand-wrote their own. Some people spent four hours waiting in line to pay their tolls. The jams finally eased at about 10:30 P.M. Turnpike officials estimated the volume at 10,000 vehicles but later revised it to 27,000—a number equal to the amount of traffic expect- ed in about a week of operation. Overflow exit lanes were quickly added to accommodate the expected crowd for the second Sunday. Even more cars and trucks used it then—about 30,000—but the preparations prevented a recurrence of the first weekend’s nightmare.
With temporary problems discounted, the turnpike seemed to live up to the “dream highway” image that its promoters had been pushing. Gov. Arthur H. James drove from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg in its first week and called it a “peach of a road.” Fortune magazine termed it the “first American highway that is better than the American car.” Reginald M. Cleveland of The New York Times wrote: “Underfoot is a continuous ribbon of smooth pavement crossed by bridges of simple beauty. Overhead are the hawks of the Kittatinny [Mountain], their flight scarcely more swift or effortless than that of the driver of the new super-road.”
Traffic planners expected 1.3 million vehicles in the turnpike’s first year of operation; in fact the tally was 2.4 million. This success disproved the critics, some of them at the highest levels of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, who had favored improved urban highways but not intercity expressways. President Roosevelt and Congress liked the long-distance superhighway concept, and in 1944 the precursor to the Interstate Highway Act was passed. The turnpike chairman, Walter A. Jones, had already issued his own proposal for an 1,800-mile $860 million system of toll superhighways stretching from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, and from Philadelphia to Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. A turnpike engineer in the Somerset field office, J. M. Kantner, had written in the Somerset Daily American soon after the road’s opening, “The completion may well mark the driving of the golden spike in the first link of America’s future chain of super highways....”
After World War II the Pennsylvania Turnpike expanded both in mileage and in popularity. A 100-mile extension costing $87 million was built east toward Philadelphia in November 1950, and a 67-mile western extension costing $77.5 million reached the Ohio border in December 1951. Traffic and revenue had been depressed during the war, with gasoline and tire rationing in effect, but now civilian prosperity began to show itself. Traffic rose from 2.4 million vehicles in 1946, the first postwar year, to 11 million in 1952, the first year both major extensions were opened.