the Pennsylvania Turnpike first opened for business on October 1,
1940 it quickly earned the nickname "the tunnel
highway" because of the seven tunnels through which
America's first superhighway passed while crossing the state's
Since the original Pennsylvania Turnpike extended only from Carlisle to Irwin, it crossed no major river. Today, however, the Turnpike reaches from Ohio in the west to New Jersey in the east and now also includes the Northeastern Extension, the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass and the Beaver Valley Expressway.
As a result of the turnpike's expansion, (and with the closing of three of the original seven tunnels), the Pennsylvania Turnpike might be more aptly dubbed "the river highway" since it now spans many of the Keystone state's rivers.
From the mighty Allegheny to the bucolic Susquehanna to the Delaware River which separates Pennsylvania from New Jersey, the Turnpike traverses some diverse waterways. Each river provided unique challenges to the engineers and contractors responsible for building the bridges that would carry Turnpike traffic over river gorges.
The longest bridge on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the 6,571 foot span over the Delaware River, which towers 160 feet above the Delaware River, also making it one of the highest bridges along the Turnpike. The Delaware River Bridge was built in 1956 at a cost of $15 million.
Crews working to maintain the Delaware River Bridge have had an interesting and unusual challenge. They have had to work around a colony of Peregrine Falcons which have chosen the bridge as a nesting site. Since Peregrine Falcons are an endangered species, Turnpike crews avoid working on the bridge at certain times of the year so as not to disturb young Peregrine hatchlings.
While the Delaware River Bridge is the Turnpike's longest, the highest river bridge can be found in western Pennsylvania where the Beaver River Bridge, just east of the Beaver Valley Exit(#2) towers 170 feet above the Beaver River. However, the Hawk Falls Bridge along the Northeastern Extension just south of the Pocono Exit(#35),is the Turnpike's highest bridge at 190 feet, although it does not cross a river. Since the Hawk Falls Bridge is the Turnpike's highest, it was selected for inclusion on a special shoulder patch.
The Susquehanna River Bridge was the first major river bridge to be constructed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was built in 1950 as part of the superhighway's expansion from the original eastern terminus in Carlisle to King of Prussia, PA.
Built at a cost of $5.1 million dollars, the Susuqehanna River Bridge opened in 1950. At 4,526 feet long, it remains one of the longest bridges on the Turnpike, although it rises just 55 feet above the Susquehanna River.
The Turnpike's newest river bridges are on the Beaver Valley Expressway where the Mahoning River bridges (Northbound and Southbound) were built in 1992. Each bridge is 1,710 feet long, and the two were built at a total cost of over $16.5 million.
The Mahoning River bridges are notable for the use of so-called weathering steel in their construction. "Essentially weathering steel eliminates the need for painting most of the structure," said Gary Graham of the Turnpike's engineering department. "These are large structures and would be difficult and expensive to paint because of their height. Weathering steel gets what is essentially a light coat of rust, called a patina, on it and that protects the steel."
"Down the road, weathering steel will save us more than money," said Frank Kempf, Jr., head of the Turnpike's bridge unit. "It can be easily inspected, readily repaired and it is environmentally sound."
The Mahoning River bridges are the only river-spanning structures built by the Turnpike since the 1950's. Of the 14 river bridges along the Turnpike system, 12 were built as part of the Turnpike's aggressive expansion projects which took place in that decade.
When the Turnpike was extended from Irwin to the Ohio Line in 1951, the Beaver River Bridge was constructed along with the Allegheny River Bridge (a 2,180 foot-long structure) and a smaller 997 foot-long bridge over Brush Creek.
In 1954, the Turnpike was expanding east from King of Prussia toward New Jersey. A 1,224 foot-long bridge was opened that year over the Schuylkill River and a shorter, 631 foot-long structure was built over Diamond Run. As is detailed elsewhere in this publication, the Schuylkill River Bridge and the bridge at Diamond Run are scheduled to begin undergoing rehabilitation later this year.
The final link to New Jersey opened in 1956 when traffic first rolled across the Delaware River Bridge. That same year, the Northeastern Extension from Montgomery County to the Scranton area opened along with the Hawk Run Bridge, a bridge over Pohopoco Creek and a 1,494 foot-long span over the Lehigh River.
The last bridge to open in the 1950's was one carrying the Northeastern Extension over the Lackawanna River. It opened in 1957. It would be 35 years before another bridge would open on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Last September, the Mahoning River Bridge, which opened in 1992, was redesignated the Thomas J. Fee Bridge in honor of Mr. Fee who is a former State Representative and current Commissioner in Lawrence County.
Over bridges and through tunnels, the Pennsylvania Turnpike carries travelers through 506 miles of scenic countryside. Today, planners are busy working on the Turnpike's next expansion projects: the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the Southern Beltway. As a result, the Monongahela River will earn its own spot in Turnpike history as the first river to be bridged by the Turnpike in the 21st Century.