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Vanderbilt's Folly - Origins of the Pennsylvania Turnpike
During the 1870s the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad engaged in a bitter price war, each trying to drive the other out of business. Part of the problem was that the Pennsylvania Railroad was operating trains in New Jersey which was considered New York Central territory.
To strike back at the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central president William Vanderbilt, decided to invade the Pennsylvania Railroad's territory by building an alternative route to Pittsburgh.
In 1883, Vanderbilt brought together some financial backers, including Frank Gowen, President of the Reading Railroad1, and Andrew Carnegie, Henry Oliver, Phipps Frick and EM Ferguson, who were all steel barons, to pledge more than $1 million each to build this second route to Pittsburgh.
40 years earlier, Col Charles Schattler of the US Army Corps of Engineers surveyed two acceptable railroad routes across the southern part of Pennsylvania. One route became the main line for the Pennsylvania Railroad which was completed in 1850. The second route was never used.
Construction began in Harrisburg, at the terminus of the Reading Railroad's lines there near the state capital. The plan was to link Harrisburg with Port Perry along the Monogahela River near Pittsburgh. Thousands of workers toiled along the 209-mile route, digging nine tunnels through the Allegheny Mountains.
By 1885, the work was more than 60 percent complete, including six tunnels. During the construction, 27 men were killed - the majority in the tunnel construction. But at this point costs were twice the initial estimates, running to upwards of $10 million. At this point, banker JP Morgan, who was also a member of the New York Central board of directors stepped in to call a stop to the price war and construction of the alternative route to Pittsburgh.
During the negotiations between the railroad directors of the Pennsylvania line and the New York Central on Morgan's yacht, it was agreed that the two railroads would get out of each other's territory.
New York Central's alternative route to Pittsburgh was to be purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad2. The Pennsylvania Railroad vacated its lines in New Jersey and turned them over to the New York Central.
After the agreements, the right-of-way for the alternative route fell into disuse since the Pennsylvania Railroad didn't need two routes to Pittsburgh and the New York Central had agreed to vacate the line. The costly project eventually became known as 'Vanderbilt's Folly'.
There are still reminders of Vanderbilt's Folly present in southern Pennsylvania today. Piers for a never-completed railroad bridge across the mile-wide Susquehanna River still stand. But the greatest legacy is that most of the route, including several of the tunnels, now are used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The turnpike which opened in 1940 is also known as America's first superhighway. Built in the 1930s, the highway's design served as the model for America's Interstate Highway System. It is also considered to be one of the most successful toll roads ever built.