Tunnels are a Rich Part of Turnpike History...
By Lowman S. Henry

In late 1934 as America struggled with the Great Depression, Victor Lecoq, a Pennsylvania Planning Board employee, William Sutherland of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association and newly-elected State Representative Cliff S. Patterson of Monongahela, developed the idea of building a new highway along the then-abandoned South Pennsylvania Railroad Company line through the Allegheny Mountains.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration was looking for work-relief projects to jump start the U.S. economy, and the three visionaries thought the highway would fit the bill.

On April 23, 1935, Patterson introduced a bill in the State House to authorize a feasibility study for the new road. He was the only sponsor. But, the Associated Press picked up on the story and reporter David Fernsler began transmitting dispatches on the proposed "weather-proof tunnel highway."

The rest, as they say, is history. What legend suggests began as a late night dinner conversation that winter night in 1934 became America's first superhighway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Early promotional material billed the Pennsylvania Turnpike as the "tunnel highway" because the roadway ran through seven tunnels as it traversed the mountainous terrain between Carlisle and Irwin, Pennsylvania.

Initially, planners proposed nine tunnels. But, Quemahoning and Negro mountains near Somerset were both by-passed and seven tunnels made it from the drawing board to construction.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened for business on October 1, 1940, it included two-lane tunnels at Laurel Hill, Allegheny, Ray's Hill, Sideling Hill, Tuscarora, Kittatinny and Blue Mountain. Rapidly increasing traffic volumes, far surpassing anything anticipated by early Turnpike planners, soon made the two-lane tunnels obsolete and prompted consideration of by-passing or "double tunneling" the seven original tunnels.

After exhaustive studies, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission decided to construct new parallel tunnels at Blue Mountain, Kittatinny Mountain, Tuscarora Mountain and Allegheny Mountain. The decision was made to by-pass the Ray's Hill, Sideling Hill and Laurel Hill tunnels.

William K. Vanderbilt, kingpin of the New York Central Railroad, and industrial baron Andrew Carnegie dreamed of building an east-west railroad across southern Pennsylvania to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Over $10 million dollars was spent and 26 lives lost when the unfinished project was halted in 1886.

The Laurel Hill Tunnel near Donegal was one of the nine tunnels which were partly completed during construction of the ill-fated South Penn Railroad. Workers had bored through 813 feet of solid rock at the Laurel

Hill site and had built some of the approach grades when work stopped. Over the next 50 years, the site became a nesting place for snakes and rats as water partly filled the tunnel.

After Governor George H. Earle signed an Act on May 21, 1937 establishing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the Laurel Hill Tunnel got a new lease on life. A contract for $1,578,493.00 was awarded to Hunkin-Conkley, Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio and the tunnel was extended another 3,555 feet. Traffic began flowing through Laurel Hill when the Turnpike opened on October 1, 1940.

But, the tunnel's days were numbered. On August 7, 1962, the Latrobe Construction Company began cutting a new four-lane bypass through Laurel Hill and on October 30, 1964, the tunnel was again abandoned.

The actual cut which carried the Turnpike through Laurel Hill is one of the deepest highway cuts in the eastern United States at 145 feet. Construction crews removed 5.5 million cubic yards of material in digging the cut.

Like their counterpart to the west, the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels were part of the South Penn Railroad's initial efforts to establish a transportation link across Pennsylvania.

By the early 1960's, the York, Pennsylvania engineering firm of Buchart-Horn was called upon to study the traffic bottleneck at the two tunnels and recommended a 13.1 mile bypass that included reconstruction and relocation of the Breezewood Interchange and construction of a new east-west service plaza (Sideling Hill). The by-pass replaced 13 miles of the original Turnpike, so it did not add significantly to the length of the superhighway.

The Sideling Hill By-pass, completed at a cost of $17,203,000, opened on November 26, 1968, sending both the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels into retirement. Portions of the vacated highway and the tunnels themselves still exist today and are used by the Turnpike for testing and research.

The closing of the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels in 1968 left just four of the seven original Turnpike tunnels in operation. A fifth tunnel, the Lehigh Tunnel on the Northeastern Extension which had opened on November 7, 1957, now constitute the Turnpike's tunnel system.

All five existing Turnpike tunnels began as two-lane tunnels. Through the course of their history, companion tunnels have been built alongside the original facilities to accommodate the Turnpike's four lanes.

The Allegheny Tunnel was the only one of the original seven tunnels to be built in its entirety by Turnpike construction crews. There was a tunnel started in the mountain by the South Penn Railroad, but it was never completed. Water seepage in the original railroad tunnel caused the ceiling to crumble and parts of the tunnel filled with rock. Engineers decided to build a brand new tunnel 85 feet south and parallel to the old tunnel. It was built at a cost of $2,672,188.

By the late 1950's, the need for a second tunnel had become apparent. The second tunnel was built at a cost of $8,237,272 and contained many modern features -- such as fluorescent lighting and powerful ventilating systems -- which were not available in 1940. The older tunnel was renovated to include those systems at a cost of $3,460,934. The Allegheny tunnels, at 6,070 feet in length, are the longest tunnels still utilized by the Turnpike. (The decommissioned Sideling Hill Tunnel is 6,782 feet long.)

By 1996, Turnpike officials had once again begun to consider the status of the aging original Allegheny Tunnel. Turnpike engineers are currently in the process of determining whether to upgrade and rehabilitate, by-pass or build a new Allegheny Tunnel.

Work on the Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain tunnels in Franklin County just west of Carlisle posed special environmental challenges. The short valley between the two tunnels is in the Shippensburg Water Authority's prime watershed. As a result, tunneling was carried out from only one end of each of the tunnels.

The second Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain tunnels, along with the additional Tuscorara Mountain tunnel on the Franklin/Huntingdon county border, all opened to the motoring public on November 26, 1968. The Blue Mountain tunnel is, at 4,339 feet in length, the shortest tunnel currently in operation. (The closed 3,532 foot long Ray's Hill Tunnel is the shortest of the original seven tunnels.)

The last remaining two-lane tunnel on the Turnpike was the Lehigh Tunnel on the Northeastern Extension. Work got underway on the $37 million second Lehigh Tunnel with groundbreaking ceremonies on February 14, 1989. On June 13, 1990, crews working from both ends of the mountain "holed through" and completed their work by November 22, 1991, when the new Lehigh Tunnel opened for business.

The new Lehigh Tunnel is 4,380 feet long. The tunnel's opening was historic because for the first time there was a four-lane highway the entire 506-mile length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike system.

From 1930's wire dispatches to the opening of the second Lehigh Tunnel, tunnels have been an integral and interesting part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In mid-1997, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission adopted a 12-year capital expenditures plan which calls for continued upgrading and rehabilitation of the Turnpike's tunnels, ensuring safe, efficient travel for Turnpike motorists well into the 21st Century.

 


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