“The Pennsylvania Turnpike: America’s First Superhighway” Exhibit at State Museum of Pennsylvania

 

Cars line up to enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Blue Mountain, one of 11 interchanges on the original 160-mile section. Photo taken from Pennsylvania State Archives.

Cars line up to enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Blue Mountain, one of eleven interchanges on the original 160-mile section. Photo taken from Pennsylvania State Archives.

 

By Curtis Miner, Senior History Curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in October 1940 as the first limited-access “super highway” in the country, there was the sense that history was unfolding, even if its implications for how Americans might travel in the future could only be glimpsed faintly, if at all.

The press corps of the day declared it to be a “dream highway“ and America’s answer to the German Autobahn. The thousands of motorists who descended on it during its first weekend of operation, many having waited in line for hours for a chance to ride the “magic carpet” across the Alleghenies, seemed to agree.

Though there were other long-distance roadways then in existence, including national routes such as the Lincoln Highway, none offered the speed, convenience, and safety of the new 160-mile stretch that crossed the Allegheny Mountains connecting Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. The Turnpike had everything that its contemporaries did not: four lanes instead of two; low grades and gentle curves; limited access at designated “interchanges”; integrated service plazas; and a relatively direct path that bypassed the obstructions—both natural and man-made—that dogged travel on other highways.

Crews working on one of the seven tunnels that were incorporated into the design of the Turnpike. The tunnels permitted vehicles to go through, rather than over and around, the mountains that separated Pittsburgh from Harrisburg. Photo taken from Pennsylvania State Archives.

Crews working on one of the seven tunnels that were incorporated into the design of the Turnpike. The tunnels permitted vehicles to go through, rather than over and around, the mountains that separated Pittsburgh from Harrisburg. Photo taken from Pennsylvania State Archives.

For motorists in the mid-Atlantic, the proof was in the time clock: opening of the Turnpike’s first section cut travel time between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in half.

Ironically, the same features that made the new superhighway so worthy of journalistic hype when it first debuted make it largely indistinguishable today from other interstates. That’s largely due to the Turnpike’s success in creating a blueprint for superhighway design, one that has been replicated across other state toll roads that followed, and, after 1956, across the entire Interstate Highway System that President Eisenhower signed into law.

As the State Museum of Pennsylvania embarked on a plan to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 2015, the challenge was to use this paradox as an opportunity: namely, as an occasion to make visitors aware of the history and significance of a roadway whose existence they had likely taken for granted. The interpretive goal was to tell the story behind the creation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and to use the rich historical records that the Commission left behind, and later transferred to the State Museum and State Archives, to interpret the historic roadway from the perspective of both those who planned it and those who used it.

The project team’s first decision was to locate the planned exhibit, both conceptually and physically, within a more useful context. Rather than develop a temporary exhibit (as had been originally requested by the Turnpike Commission, with whom the Museum partnered), the team instead proposed building the exhibit within an existing gallery. The present Hall of Industry and Technology encompasses about ten thousand square feet on Floor 2 of the museum and is home to some of the its most popular—and largest—artifacts. Many of these are transportation related but only loosely interpreted (if at all) within the larger narrative of Pennsylvania history. What the gallery needed was a coherent, audience-friendly story line that focused on Pennsylvania-specific stories and that revealed the historic interplay between land, transportation, and industry.

Uniformed tollbooth operators collected and distributed fare cards, and also served as the superhighway’s “ambassadors.” Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Uniformed tollbooth operators collected and distributed fare cards and also served as the superhighway’s “ambassadors.” Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The overarching narrative, suggested by some of the artifacts, but not explicitly drawn out, was that Pennsylvania history had been shaped by the convergence of people and land. Many of the commonwealth’s storied industries—its lumber and agriculture, its coal and oil reserves, its legendary steel production—developed from opportunities presented by the land. At the same time, many of its transportation innovations—from the Conestoga Wagon to the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Horseshoe Curve—had been developed in response to challenges of the land—specifically, the mountainous terrain that historically impeded interstate travel. Placed literally alongside these antecedents, the Pennsylvania Turnpike—especially its ingenious series of tunnels through the Allegheny Mountains—could be understood as the next chapter in an ongoing story.

Another challenge was identifying collections that would help reconstruct for visitors the story behind the building of America’s first superhighway and the experience of traveling it. Although it fit snugly within a broader historical pattern, the development of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was hardly inevitable. Rather, its financing and construction was the product of a very specific historical moment, as was its public reception during the days, months, and years that followed the opening of its first section.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially opened for business at the stroke of midnight on October 1, 1940. Crowds gathered at the interchanges, like this one in Irwin, Westmoreland County, to witness the historic event. Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially opened for business at the stroke of midnight on October 1, 1940. Crowds gathered at the interchanges, like this one in Irwin, Westmoreland County, to witness the historic event. Photo courtesy of
Pennsylvania State Archives.

In an effort to tie these two themes together within the confines of the designated gallery space, the project team chose to anchor the exhibit around a full-sized vignette depicting a c. 1948 vehicle passing through a tollbooth and preparing to merge on to the roadway. Long-time Turnpike travelers would have recognized the scene. Alongside the tunnels and service plazas, the hexagonal tollbooth, painted in “Turnpike blue and gold,” represented the most architecturally distinctive feature of the new toll road. They were also significant because the toll collectors who worked inside them represented the “human face” of the Turnpike for the hundreds of thousands of motorists who passed through to collect their fare cards and pay their tolls.

Most of the original tollbooths from the first section of the Turnpike had been decommissioned and scrapped in the early 1980s. The State Museum managed to acquire a disassembled tollbooth that had stood at the original western terminus of the Turnpike in Irwin, some thirty miles east of Pittsburgh. With the support of both private donors and the state, project staff began work on conserving and rebuilding the tollbooth. Research, treatment, and reconstruction took about eighteen months. Early in the project, the Transportation section of the Smithsonian Museum of American History provided a key document: an original architectural drawing for the first set of prefabricated tollbooths.

The tollbooth vignette was rounded out with additional archival resources drawn from Record Group 29 at the State Archives. This collection, which was acquired through several large transfers from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, was recently processed and made available to researchers. It presently contains dozens of cubic square feet of records documenting the construction and subsequent operation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Original maps, architectural and engineering drawings, travel brochures, and construction photographs were integrated into the surrounding interpretive displays and focused on the experience of the Turnpike from the vantage point of both the builders and the motorists who drove on it.

“The Pennsylvania Turnpike: America’s First Superhighway” opened on October 1, 2015 and occupies about 2000 square feet within the State Museum’s Industry and Transportation Gallery. It is the first of a series of planned, modular upgrades to that gallery. Photo from The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike: America’s First Superhighway opened on October 1, 2015, and occupies about two thousand square feet within the State Museum’s Industry and Transportation Gallery. It is the first of a series of planned, modular upgrades to that gallery. Photo from The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The new two-thousand-square-foot upgrade to the newly renamed Hall of Industry and Transportation opened on October 1, 2015—precisely seventy-five years to the date after the first cars rolled past the original tollbooth at Irwin at midnight. In the three-quarters of a century since, the Turnpike has nearly tripled its original mileage, thanks to four postwar expansions. By the same token, the national highway system it helped to seed now includes nearly forty-three thousand miles of roadway. Because modern interstates are so ubiquitous, it’s easy to overlook their more modest beginnings. The project team’s hope is that the new exhibit will offer visitors and an opportunity to contemplate the historical significance of an American superhighway that revolutionized travel both within Pennsylvania and across the nation.

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