Stories from PA History
Crossing the Alleghenies
Crossing the Alleghenies
Chapter Four: The Pennsylvania Turnpike

One car exits as another enters a lighted tunnel.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Blue Mountain tunnel, 1940.
Early in July, 1953 Pennsylvania state trooper Manly Stampler noticed a large black Chrysler with white-wall tires cutting off other cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He nudged his police cruiser out onto the highway, turned on his lights, and pulled over the offending driver. It was former president Harry S. Truman, along with his wife Bess, together on their first extended automobile excursion as private citizens since 1944.

Delicately, Trooper Stampler began lecturing the former president on the driving regulations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. "He was very nice about it," Stampler recalled, "and promised to be more careful." Always feisty, however, the sixty-nine-year-old Truman afterward told amused newspaper reporters that he had never before been cited for a traffic violation, suggesting that the young trooper had probably pulled him over for a handshake as much as anything else.

An antique truck is parked next to a small, octagonal shaped building. Several people are standing around the building, filling small tanks.
"Good Gulf Gasoline" filling station, Baum Boulevard and St. Clair...
The speed and convenience of the Pennsylvania Turnpike attracted more than just retired statesmen following its opening in 1940. The modern highway culminated a long period of automobile development that radically altered both commercial transportation and the way Americans, like the Trumans, traveled for pleasure.

In 1893, bicycle mechanics J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts invented the first successful gas-fueled automobile in the United States. By 1899, thirty different companies were building automobiles in the U.S. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was one of the first places where automobiles became popular. The city was home to a surprising number of car dealerships that served the upper Ohio River Valley. Here the Gulf Refining Company opened the markerFirst Drive-In Filling Station in the United States, down the street from some of the new dealerships. The station was located at Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh.

As the number of automobiles and diesel trucks increased, so did the need for better roads. With prodding from automobile owners and businessmen, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill in 1903 establishing the State Highway Department, the nation's first. Under the direction of that agency's commissioner, an effort was launched to build hundreds of miles of new macadam roads across the state, primarily in the larger population centers. However, this highway-building program was not popular with local government officials, since it required them to pick up a major portion of the costs.
Image of Pinchott road before paving
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Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, thoroughfare before paving, 1909.

The state government did not take full responsibility for road improvements until passage of the Sproul Act in 1911. This Act required that a system of state roads be constructed and maintained at the sole expense of the state. Once again, however, these roads were primarily located in, and around, larger cities and towns. Many of the so-called back or rural roads of Pennsylvania remained unpaved until the early 1930s.

Governor Pinchot on road grader
Governor Gifford Pinchot on a road grader, circa 1932.
In 1931, under the direction of Governor Gifford Pinchot, the state launched its first major effort to improve Pennsylvania's back roads. The markerFirst Pinchot Road as the new rural highways were labeled, was constructed in York County. Governor Pinchot colorfully labeled his initiative the "get the farmer out of the mud" program.

The Great Depression spurred new dreams for highway development. During the mid-1930s, state officials became convinced that old U.S. Route 30 was no longer acceptable as the main east-west highway across the state. They also wanted a public works project that could help rejuvenate the state's economy. The Commonwealth surveyed the old defunct South Pennsylvania Railroad right of way for the route that would become the Pennsylvania Turnpike. During the nineteenth century, William Vanderbilt had attempted to create a rival to the Pennsylvania Railroad, but his South Penn line never came together and sections of the unfinished line provided the starting point for turnpike construction through the Allegheny Mountains.

On May 21, 1937, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was created. With private companies uneasy about supporting this new turnpike, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal agency, offered a series of loans and bonds to the Commission, which also offered construction bonds to the private companies.

Turnpike construction photo
Carving out a section of roadbed for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, circa 1939.
Construction on the markerPennsylvania Turnpike began in 1938. The nation's first modern four-lane automobile highway opened to the public on October 1, 1940. The new turnpike initially stretched 160 miles from Carlisle in Cumberland County to Irwin in Westmoreland County. Crossing the Alleghenies and connecting two sections of the state, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, like the canal and railroad before it, also produced new achievement in engineering in order to traverse the harsh terrain. A series of seven tunnels penetrated the Alleghenies, allowing motorists to pass under instead of over the divide.
Enthusiastic travelers line up with their cars for opening day on the Pennsylvania
Enthusiastic travelers line up with their cars for opening day on the Pennsylvania.

When it was completed in 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was arguably the finest highway in the world, rivaling Germany's autobahns. The toll road soon provided astounding returns on the initial $29 million investment. Within the first twelve months, over 2,400,000 cars, buses, and trucks used the turnpike, generating toll receipts worth $2,950,213. In October 1948, the state extended the Turnpike to the New Jersey state line just beyond Philadelphia. The western extension to Ohio was completed in 1949, and a northeast extension reached Scranton in 1957.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike was the culmination of Pennsylvanians' monumental efforts to cross the Alleghenies. Beginning with colonial-era King's Highways and Conestoga wagons, and continuing to canals and railroads, these efforts encouraged westward trade and expansion across the state. From wagons to trucks and from King's Highway's to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the goal was the same - cross the Alleghenies, unite the state, and promote a stronger economy.
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