The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation's first superhighway, started out as an offhand remark by a political lobbiest. Looking out his office window, William Sutherland, the general manager of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, could see the bridge piers of the abandoned railroad known as 'Vanderbilt's Folly'.
At a dinner in 1935, Sutherland remarked to state legislator Clifford Patterson and Victor LeCoq of the state planning commission that Pennsylvania should build a roadway along the abandoned railbed for his truckers.
Rep Patterson, who represented Washington County near Pittsburgh, knew how bad the roads were from Harrisburg to his home district. He was taken with the idea and had Sutherland print up maps showing the proposed highway. Then on 23 April 1935, Patterson introduced a resolution to study the matter.
The measure passed and the Pensylvania Turnpike was on its way to becomming a reality - though nobody realized the significance of the action at the time.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, state and local governments created public works projects to prodve jobs for the great number of unemployed workers in America. The money for most of these projects came from the federal Works Progress Administration, a department created by President Franklin D Roosevelt.
When Rep Patterson's resolution was approved at the state Capitol, Warren Van Dyke, the state secretary of highways, was appointed to the commission to study the feasibility of the project. In July 1935, he applied to the WPA for a grant to survey the old railroad route.
The plan was supposedly sent to FDR himself for approval. The president is said to have viewed the project as a prototype for superhighways across the nation to effectively move military troops as the world was preparing for war.
With $35,000 in federal grant money, the survey began near Carlisle in the autumn. By that spring, it was determined that 160 miles of highway could be built from Carlisle to Irwin (near Pittsburgh) at a cost of roughly $70 million.
On 21 May, 1937 bill introduced by Patterson became a law creating a commission to issue bonds to fund the highway project. The first chairman of the Pennslvania Turnpike Commission was a political buddy of then-Governor George Earle and retired oilman from Pittsburgh, Walter Jones.
Jones succeed in convincing the two railroads which owned the land on which the highway was to be built to sell him the right-of-ways for $1 million each as opposed to the $9 million each they had been asking. At the same time he hired an architect to design the highway, even though he didn't have any means of funding the project yet.
To pay for the construction, the Commission issued $60 million in bonds in early 1938, but no brokerage house would touch them because there was no real way to judge their value. So Jones went to Washington and convinced the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to buy $35 million worth of the bonds in June 1938. Jone also convinced the Public Works Administration of help underwrite the costs of construction - to the tune of 45 percent of the project.
President Roosevelt approved the plans in August 1938, and as soon as the money started to flow, work began clearing water out of the tunnels. The federal government required that construction begin at the end of October 1938 in order to receive the funding.
The Commission advertised for firms to bid on the work on October 14. The bid documents were opened and contracts were awarded on 26 October and work began on a 10-mile stretch of roadway in Cumberland County.
Work was progressing nicely until the Commission learned that the Public Works Administration was being disbanded. In order to receive the funding from that agency, a 29 June, 1940 deadline was imposed to finish the pavement. To meet this deadline, 155 contracts were given to close to 120 different companies to finish the job on time, employing more than 15,000.
Heavy rains delayed the work because the concrete wouldn't set in the wet conditions. By 8 May, 1940 only about 30 miles of pavement was finished. In the scramble to finish the job, thousands of workers lived with their families in tents along the job site. Working around the clock, crews were laying more than three miles of concrete roadway each day. The break-neck pace of work eventually sent Jones to the hospital with fatigue.
At the same time, crews continued to bore the tunnels through the hard sandstone of the Applachain Mountain Range. Workers enlarged six of the old railroad tunnels and built a new one at Allegheny Mountain. Buildings housing large ventilating fans were also built at the tunnel portals to blow fresh air through the tunnels - if these fans didn't exist, the carbon monoxide levels from vehicles' exhausts would pose a threat to motorists.
The project met the federal deadlines. Some minor work, including the construction of 10 service plazas and the toll booths delayed the opening of the highway until October 1940. The Turnpike officially opened on 1 October, 1940 at 12:01 am.
The toll road was an immediate success. More than 10,000 cars lined up on 6 October to drive on the roadway - both for the thrill of riding through its tunnels and to push their vehicles to the limit. At first, the turnpike had no speed limit. Now, of course, the speed limit is 65 mph for its entire length and is patrolled by the Pennsylvania State Police.
Jones had plans to extend the Turnpike west from Pittsburgh to the border with Ohio and east from Carlisle to the New Jersey state line. These plans were interrupted by the Second World War. Jones resigned from the Turnpike Commission in 1942 and died a year later at the age of 68.