News Release

CONTACT: Renee Vid Colborn
Phone: 717-645-3502
October 1, 2015

State Museum Unveils PA Turnpike Exhibit on Superhighway’s 75th Birthday
New permanent exhibit salutes nationwide impact of this pioneering toll highway

HARRISBURG, PA. (OCT. 1, 2015) – State officials unveiled a new exhibit today – the 75th anniversary of the PA Turnpike’s opening – to pay tribute to the central role the historic highway played in ushering in a new era of transportation in the U.S. Officials from The State Museum of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission gathered to commemorate the Turnpike’s 1940 opening and to mark the official opening of the new exhibit, titled “The Pennsylvania Turnpike: America’s First Superhighway.”

When the Turnpike opened to the motoring public on Oct. 1, 1940, it revolutionized automobile travel across the nation, before long serving as the blueprint for the modern interstate highway system that arose in the 1950s and 1960s.

 “All through the 1940s, journalists breathlessly referred to the Turnpike as a ‘dream highway’ and ‘America’s first superhighway,’ both with much justification. Its 160 miles of limited access, four-lane highway were hailed as America’s answer to the Autobahn,” said Curt Miner, Ph.D., senior history curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. “There had been other paved roadways that shared similar design and construction qualities, but nothing compared to the Turnpike’s scale and scope or its impact on long-distance automobile travel.”

Two major artifacts, never before exhibited, greet visitors to the 2,000 square-foot exhibit: an original 1940 tollbooth from the Irwin Interchange and a 1970s electronic “road conditions” control board from the Turnpike dispatch center in Middletown. The reconstructed tollbooth is displayed in a period setting that evokes the heyday of Turnpike travel just after World War II, while the control board underscores the Turnpike’s ongoing commitment to safety and innovation.

The aim of the new gallery, noted James Vaughan, executive director of the PHMC, is to highlight the Turnpike’s contributions to improving the state’s transportation infrastructure. By tunneling through the Allegheny Mountains, rather than routing over or around them, and maintaining uniform design and construction standards across its entire length, the original section of roadway cut travel time between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh by half.

Everything from early reflective signs to roadside callboxes to rumble strips testifies to the Turnpike’s leadership in highway engineering and design. Dozens of other items from the Museum’s permanent collections, including archival photographs, films, memorabilia and scale models, further illustrate the Turnpike’s historic impact on modern automobile travel.

“This amazing display is a fitting acknowledgment to a Pennsylvania asset that did more than provide a faster route through the mountains – it literally changed the way we travel,” said PA Turnpike Chairman Sean Logan. “The exhibit not only recognizes the Turnpike’s significance to the commonwealth, but also its transformative role in crafting the mobile lifestyle we enjoy today.”

The State Museum of Pennsylvania partnered with the Turnpike Commission to create the exhibit. The collaboration began nearly two years ago when the agencies met to discuss the toll road’s anniversary. As it turned out, museum officials had already been planning renovations to its major galleries. The Turnpike exhibit is to be the first in a series of upgrades to the popular second-floor gallery. When completed, new exhibits will highlight key stories associated with Pennsylvania’s industrial and transportation heritage.

“We are thrilled that The State Museum saw fit to feature the PA Turnpike in its latest transportation exhibit,” said Turnpike CEO Mark Compton. “This captivating display is an important reminder for all Pennsylvanians — including the many school children who visit — of the starring role the Commonwealth of PA and the Turnpike played in our nation’s history. Today, there are nearly 48,000 miles of interstates crisscrossing America, and it all started here.”

Private donations from companies in the road design and construction industry helped fund the exhibit.

Originally, the 160-mile Turnpike had 11 toll plazas, 10 service plazas and four maintenance facilities. Today, the Turnpike has more than tripled in length to 552 miles with 68 toll plazas, 17 service plazas and 27 maintenance facilities. In its first 12 months of operation, about 2.5 million vehicles traveled the PA Turnpike. Last year, nearly 194 million vehicles traveled the toll road. To put it another way, the Turnpike today sees about as much traffic in an average work week as it did in its first 12 months.



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