The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike by Mitchell E. Dakelman and Neal A. Schorr (Arcadia, 2016)
“Our story begins in the early 1960s with two young boys who had never met. One grew up near Pittsburgh, the other in central New Jersey,” writes Neal A. Schorr in the Introduction to The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Schorr is talking about himself and his writing partner, Mitchell E. Dakelman, who grew up miles apart, but each developed a life-long fascination for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As adults they became acquainted and realized that they shared a passion for railroads and highways, most especially the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of the nation's most scenic roadways, but a highway that had past its prime.
The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is Schorr and Dakelman's second endeavor together. Their first work, The Pennsylvania Turnpike, published in 2004, has been reprinted several times. Obviously, there are many fans of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, despite the decline of the engineering phenomenon of the 1930s. Using Dakelman's massive collection of historic turnpike photographs, as well as pictures that he has taken himself, and Schorr's knowledge of highway engineering, the authors created their second volume to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this storied highway, so representative of American automotive travel.
The authors concurred that in order to do justice to the incredible collection of photographs to be included in the new volume, it would have to be printed in a much larger format than their first endeavor. That notion paid off because the rich detail in each picture can be appreciated and studied for its historical value.
The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike begins with the story of how the Pennsylvania Turnpike was conceived. In the early years of mechanized travel, trains were the primary mode of travel and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania was endeavoring to put in its own line, the South Penn. However, when J.P. Morgan realized the both the South Penn and the West Shore Railroads that were being built would duplicate the main lines of the Pennsy and New York Central Lines, work on the railroads was abandoned. The first chapter of The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike includes eerie and desolate photos of abandoned tunnels and trails that would have been part of those esteemed railway lines.
Fifty years later, when the automobile was becoming the main mode of mass transportation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was created on May 21, 1937. “The job of the commission would be to construct a new express highway through the mountains using the South Penn right of way. Unfortunately, the legislation failed to provide funding for the project. Therefore, the first job of the commission was to obtain the financing to construct the new 160 mile long highway,” the authors tell us. (p.22)
In October 1938 the first contract to build the “world's greatest highway,” was granted and one of the greatest challenges of modern travel was tackled. Since Pennsylvania happens to be quite mountainous, figuring out how to carve roadways through the treacherous terrain presented engineering problems of great magnitude. Here again, the authors include photographs detailing the initial work of excavating hillsides and ridge tops. One photograph shows a rare panoramic view taken of the excavation work on the turnpike in Aliquippa Gap. Other photos depict the equipment used to build the highway, predecessors of the bulldozers of today.
Aside from telling the tale of the struggle to build the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Dakelman and Schorr, the writing duo emphasize how the highway is representative of American culture from its inception until the present day. Schorr writes, “The truth is that when the highway first opened, and for many years thereafter, it was a source of wonder and amazement to everyone who used it. It was a supreme engineering achievement, and it was a harbinger of the huge social changes that would impact our nation in the post-World War II era.” (p.8)
As time passed, however, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, due to poor maintenance and primitive roadway engineering, the Pennsylvania Turnpike fell into disrepair. For thirty years the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission did not keep up with needed repairs and improvement. Fortunately, the authors point out, “At the beginning of the 21st century, the turnpike commission adopted a new approach to the reconstruction of the highway.” (p. 158) The important decision was made to create a new six-lane design, including replacement bridges. Not only were these improvements beneficial to efficient travel, “the most important aspect of the (bridge) design was the attention to aesthetics.” (p. 158) Instead of being straight concrete structures, the new bridges were constructed of faux stone or brick masonry work, making them more artistic and interesting in design.
Another major improvement to enhance the appeal of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to contemporary travelers, was the renovation to the original service plaza buildings. When rebuilt, the commission maintained the stone architecture that portrayed Colonial Pennsylvania, but inside the buildings now offer a food court, a convenience store, and clean restrooms.
When we think about how often we travel the Garden State Parkway, or the workhorse of New Jersey transportation, the New Jersey Turnpike, rarely do we think about the history of either of these important conduits of automobile travel. As drivers, we take them for granted, complaining when we have to pay the tolls for their upkeep, so necessary in the Jersey climate. For those who do consider the history of a major highway to be fascinating, both from the vantage point of transportation history, or from a purely social perspective, what Dakelman and Schorr have done in The Glory Years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is outstanding. This stimulating new volume is available at www.arcadiapublishing.com for $26.99.