Mr. Smith Remembers...
When Turnpike History Began
By Kay Jenkins Rew
Before interchanges. Before service plazas. Before maintenance facilities. Even before the roadway, there was Robert Smith and others like him, who contributed to the construction of the original Pennsylvania Turnpike. Smith was a Penn State student looking for summer employment. "It was the mid-1930's when jobs were scarce," he recalled. Smith joined a number of young men who spent hot summer days surveying land that was to become the country's first superhighway. "During our first summer, we worked out of a tiny, temporary office around Newville. The second year, we were sent to Somerset. We basically surveyed a 10-mile section in Cumberland County that was to become the first portion of the Turnpike to be built. We had to include every little outhouse and pigsty in our findings," he said. The data from those surveys was needed before bids on construction could begin. In the end, the L.M. Hutchinson Company was awarded that first historic $458,058 construction contract.
Smith also spent a month of his employment in Shippensburg. He remembers all of the Turnpike field offices being quite small and rustic, each with approximately 10 to 40 employees, depending on the location. He thought about the negative side of the job when he said, "Because we had to walk through everything from old tunnels to railroad tracks, survey crews encountered snakes, bats, and even an occasional bear. You soon learned to make a great deal of noise if a bear was approaching. Noise will usually frighten them away." He was amused by the wide variety of people who were attracted to the early pre-construction jobs. Yes, there were other college students, but also colorful characters like the old gold prospector and his wife who migrated to Pennsylvania from Canada. He smiled, "His wife was half Indian and they were both rough and tough, certainly well versed on how to survive in the wild." Smith, who originally wanted to be an explosives engineer (a friend talked him out of it), graduated from Penn State with a degree in Public Service. He is now a widower and the father of three children. At age 85, he continues to lead an interesting and full life. "After college, I went into finance, then into the insurance industry where I worked for 30 years. Upon retirement, I became a professional fundraiser but now, I'm fully retired," he commented. Being a person who witnessed the earliest beginnings of the Turnpike, someone who can compare the original highway to the 'Pike of today, Robert Smith said he thought it was a tremendous contribution to the state and traveling public when it began, and he's still sure of it today. "The Turnpike was and still is a major link across the state of Pennsylvania," he concluded.