The people, their land, and their road
An excerpt from When the Levee Breaks by Bill Keisling
The story of the Pennsylvania turnpike runs through the heart of the story of Pennsylvania, much like the road slices through the heart of some of the richest land on earth. The people, their land, and their road share a common history. It is essentially a story of getting over a hill.
The Allegheny Mountains had always blocked westward movement. For a long time this barrier wasn't too restricting. Millions of acres of rich land east of the mountains kept pioneers happy for more than two hundred years. Still they kept coming, saying goodbye forever to loved ones, clearing the forests and breaking ground. Throughout the last half of the 1700s Pennsylvania's harbor city, Philadelphia, took them all in. In time Philadelphia grew to rival and then surpass Boston as the colonies' premier city.
Consider Philadelphia's ascendancy and you invariably find yourself considering the public-spiritedness of a single man, Benjamin Franklin. He founded the world's first subscription library. He helped the city create a hospital for the underprivileged. He helped establish the university. The fire company. The scientific society. He launched campaigns to clean and illuminate city streets. Franklin improved the postal service. (The British for many years ran a post office here, but it was too expensive, disliked as a tax, and there were privacy concerns, as the mail could be inspected for disloyal sentiments.)
Credit Franklin with increasing the post office's trustworthiness and efficiency. He shipped mail on the fastest ships available, hired more carriers and demanded they work nights. He was a businessman with a practical bent for making things work. Ever on the look-out for new ideas, he was a prolific inventor who never sought a patent for his discoveries, which included bifocals and the lightning rod. He preferred to take pleasure in seeing his inventions better his fellow citizens. This alone is inconceivable today, when the race for the patent is preached as being all important.
Franklin was a champion of thrift, hard work, and human dignity. His simple formula for success was to work a little harder than the competition. He was a world-renowned scientist who proved lightning was electricity. A successful writer and publisher. A skilled and popular diplomat. A septuagenarian revolutionary, fondly remembered for snoozing in the meetings of the American constitutional conventions. He counseled that if he and the others would put their shoulders to the big matters the little ones would take care of themselves. He persuaded the French king to aid America in the war with the British. He soon organized shipments of French matériel to the colonies, a service which historians say indispensably helped to win the War of Independence. The expense to Louis XVI ultimately contributed to the French Revolution. It's said that Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia snatched lightning from God and scepters from kings.
By the end of Franklin's life Philadelphia had evolved from a dark, almost medieval town to the most advanced city in America. By 1800 Philadelphia was America's financial center and boasted the busiest port in the country. It would be easy enough to explain all this away by saying Franklin was a genius. For his ideas to take root they must certainly have fallen on fertile ground. The people must have wanted a better Pennsylvania.
The state, the country, the people all the while pushed west. By the early 1800s farmers had already cleared the rich lands around Lancaster and had settled well across the Susquehanna. Developing coal fields west of Philadelphia encouraged manufacturing. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1794 opened a bumpy, log-covered turnpike that ran sixty-two miles from Philadelphia to Lancaster. (This road survives today as Route 30.) By 1803 this pike was extended to the Susquehanna River at Columbia. Still, there was very little travel beyond what was called The Barrier, or The Endless Mountains -- The Appalachians. (President Thomas Jefferson wouldn't dispatch Lewis and Clark to explore The Wilderness until 1803. The same year Ohio became a state.)
In her 1950 book The Story of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Penelope Redd Jones observes, "That the Appalachian Barrier, which can now be traversed over the Pennsylvania turnpike in less than four hours, was a barrier in fact as well as in name in the eyes of the colonists can be more readily appreciated when one realizes that from the time of the establishment of the British colony at Jamestown to the setting up of the first trading post on the other side of the Barrier 121 years had elapsed. That is how long it took the colonists to detour through 'The Endless Mountains.' In only half the time it took to colonize the Ohio Valley from the Coastal Plains, a distance of about three hundred miles, American pioneers had crossed the plains and the Rockies and were on the Pacific Coast."
It would be romantic to say that Pennsylvania at this time enjoyed a citizen legislature, with the public represented by farmers and workingmen. Already, in the late 1700s, Pennsylvania was perfecting a party patronage system. This was really the beginning of the age of professional politicians and American cronyism.
"Pennsylvania's reputation for political corruption is historic and enduring," writes state legislative historian Paul Beers in his book Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday. "There never were any 'good old days.' Alexander Hamilton in 1794 during the Whiskey Rebellion dashed off a note: 'The political putrefaction of Pennsylvania is greater than I had any idea of.'"
Patronage in Pennsylvania was helped along by the budding federal government in the administrations of George Washington and John Adams. Tax collector and post offices, customs houses and other federal posts were filled almost exclusively by loyal Federalists, at first at the expense of Anti-federalists. Later, followers of Thomas Jefferson's Republican-Democrats also were excluded. In his book The Federalists and the Origins of the U.S. Civil Service, Carl E. Prince recounts the story of one Lord Butler, the postmaster of Wilkes-Barre. Butler "got in on the ground floor of emerging central and western Pennsylvania commerce in the 1780s acquiring goods imported into Philadelphia and selling them throughout the interior of the commonwealth," writes Prince. Using his growing wealth to buy into Federalist politics, Butler secured a seat in the state assembly and also became county sheriff. His counting house featured both the post office and the sheriff's office. Butler was "a zealous, almost fierce party man, 'decided in his political opinions and free in expressing them.'" When Jefferson became president his new postmaster general, Gideon Granger, targeted Butler for removal. "Butler informed the Republican postmaster general that he would neither relinquish his commission nor the office property in his possession, asserting that his removal was illegal," Prince recounts. Butler wrote the postmaster general that the real reason he wouldn't resign was that the job "encouraged my happiness whilst in no way affecting the happiness of any other being," and that this was "sufficient enough" reason to defy Granger. "Only the threat of federal prosecution brought the charade to an end," writes Prince, "and ended as well Butler's stormy tenure in federal office."
Pennsylvania seems doomed from this period on. Bad politics wasn't helped by the citizenry. The average Pennsylvanian -- agrarian, self-reliant, complacent and endlessly practical -- held on tight to a buck. "Pennsylvania-Dutch cheap," it's been called. Their representatives in the legislature kept in step with this frugality.
As early as 1760 calls arose for a Juniata/Allegheny rivers passage to western Pennsylvania. These calls fell on deaf and frugal ears. In the fall of 1790 one Daniel McClay laid out a canal route from the Stonycreek in Johnstown to the Poplar Run on the Frankstown branch of the Juniata. Enough popular support for McClay's idea surfaced that a legislative committee in 1791 recommended that the Juniata, Conemough and Kiskiminetas rivers be made navigable, with a portage laid over the Alleghenies. (See the 1992 National Park Service book Pennsylvania Mainline Canal: Juniata and Western Divisions, by David Fritz and A. Berle Clemensen. See also Julius Rubin's book, Canal or Railroad?) This far-sighted yet apparently expensive idea was not taken seriously by enough of the public, or the legislature. Had it been, Philadelphia today may have remained the premier American city, and Pennsylvania may still have been something.
This tendency to be penny wise and pound foolish set the stage for the singular event that cost Philadelphia and Pennsylvania their primacy. If the rise of the state can be tied to the career of one man, Franklin, so can its fall. The mayor of New York City, De Witt Clinton, as early as 1809 began championing a century-old idea of joining the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. "Clinton's Ditch," as skeptics derided his plan, failed to win federal support. In 1815 Clinton spearheaded a petition drive to the New York legislature. This effort stirred up so much popular support that in 1816 a canal commission was formed with Clinton at its head. The next year, 1817, Clinton won the governorship of New York. In 1825 Clinton rode the first boat to traverse the Erie Canal. He celebrated the completion of the trip by pouring a small barrel of water from Lake Erie into the Hudson River.
He might as well have been pissing on Philadelphia. Within five years of the opening of Erie Canal, New York City had surpassed Philadelphia both as a port and as the nation's financial capital.
To the south, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal threatened to send even more traffic through Baltimore. Seeing their prosperity slipping away, Pennsylvanians finally lunged into a do-or-die effort to throw flesh and cargo over the Alleghenies. Pennsylvania's state government in 1826 began construction of a rail and canal system known as the Main Line of Public Works. You'd catch a train in Philadelphia for the Susquehanna, ride a boat up the Juniata to Hollidaysburg, switch to a horse-drawn rail car over the Allegheny Portage Railroad to Johnstown, where you'd connect with a canal boat to Pittsburgh. All this took as much as four and half days, depending on whether horse or steam pulled your cars. Improvements later allowed you to remain in the same canal boat for the duration of the journey. Boats were hauled onto rail cars for the dry parts of the trip.
It was too little, too late. In 1839, seeing more and more commerce slipping away, Philadelphians persuaded the state legislature to finance a survey to find an all-rail route. One Col. Charles L. Schlatter surveyed three routes: a southern, a middle, and a northern. The middle route finally held the Pennsylvania Railroad. Such admired solutions as the Horseshoe Curve conquered The Barrier. In his book Vanderbilt's Folly, William H. Shank points out that "Unlike most of the other railroads of the 1840s, the Pennsylvania Railroad did not begin as a small, private enterprise, gradually growing to a position of strength after a period of hard struggle to survive. The Pennsylvania Railroad sprang into being suddenly, and with the moral and financial support of more than half the citizens of Pennsylvania. The PRR was the lusty child of a political battle which raged for four months in the state legislature at Harrisburg in 1846, concerning the future course to be pursued in Pennsylvania's east-west transportation planning."
Many western Pennsylvanians feverishly advocated tying Pittsburgh into the growing Baltimore B & O canal and rail system, on into Ohio, completely bypassing Philadelphia and the eastern part of the state. This scheme had the potential to tear the state in half and permanently damage state-wide development. The B & O plan almost won out. Shank's book recounts: "The B & O Bill was finally passed, but with a crippling amendment, which declared the whole act null and void if the Pennsylvania Railroad could raise three million dollars in stock subscriptions and actually contract for at least thirty miles of road (fifteen of them at the Pittsburgh end) before July 30, 1847." Perhaps sensing the B & O proposal could be the final blow, Philadelphians approved a plebiscite allowing their city to buy $2,500,000 worth of Pennsylvania Railroad stock. It turned out to be a popular stock offering, and the Pennsylvania Railroad was born.
The years leading up to and following the civil war brought tremendous growth to what was essentially Philadelphia's railroad. The PRR's rail tentacles soon stretched all the way to Chicago, to Washington DC, even to the hometowns of rival railroads, Baltimore and New York City. It became an era of cut-throat competition and speculation, when five rail lines ran to Chicago. At times you could ride all the way from New York to Chicago for a dollar. Speculators laid countless "nuisance lines" with the sole hope they'd be bought out by a big railroad.
This was the great birthing age of oil, coal, steel, steam and finance. Evolution begot the barons and the barons begot the trusts. Big-money largesse, legal and otherwise, flooded congress and state legislatures. In 1872 the Crédit Mobilier scandal rocked congress. Crédit Mobilier, a concern that oversaw construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, gained favorable terms for right-of-ways and land grants by offering half-priced company stock to prominent congressman. The paymaster of the scheme, Rep. Oakes Ames of Massachusetts, was a principal officer of Crédit Mobilier. Mark Twain, whose novel The Gilded Age gave the era its name, quipped, "I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world."
Newspaper cartoonists in this period characterized congress as controlled by fat trusts. Citizens' legislatures, if such animals ever existed, faded into idealized history as party bosses and wealthy interests explored new depths of corruption. There came a new era of graft and civic neglect. Philadelphia began to fill with slums. The area surrounding Independence Hall fell into seediness.
The thoughts of the barons and the bosses seldom turned to civic betterment. They acted for money, power, or out of pique, sometimes with unforeseen, far-flung results.
The story goes that William Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central Railroad, offended George Pullman by refusing to install Pullman's patented beds in New York Central sleeping cars. Pullman and other similarly miffed industrialists backed a new railroad, the West Shore Road, to compete with Vanderbilt. In 1883 the new line began running up the west bank of the Hudson River, alongside Vanderbilt's New York Central, which ran on the east shore. There followed a year of cut-throat fare slashing, until the West Shore Road went bankrupt. Vanderbilt heard rumors that the Pennsylvania Rail Road was buying the bonds of the sinking West Shore Road. Foreclosure would bring the West Shore Road into the hands of the PRR, whose ever-expanding system would now include a spur up the Hudson, seriously rivaling Vanderbilt's line.
An angry drunkard might knock down a door. When scion William Vanderbilt of New York City got mad he knocked down the Appalachian Barrier. He proposed building The South Pennsylvania Railroad over what essentially was the southern route first surveyed by Col. Schlatter in 1839-41. Tunnels would give this route easy grades and short distances. The new track would run almost 10 percent shorter than the PRR's own cross-state routes.
Pittsburgh and Ohio industrialists formed a syndicate with Vanderbilt to build a fifteen million dollar railroad. These backers gambled on cheap fares from the South Pennsylvania and/or secret rebates from the PRR. Andrew Carnegie personally kicked in five million. Contracts were signed for nine tunnels and a bridge crossing the Susquehanna at Harrisburg.
Thousands of $1.25-a-day workers poured into the mountains to dig across the spine of the Appalachians. History tells us that the people are always eager to build, and almost always benefit. Poor leadership is often all that stands in their way.
Vanderbilt energetically pursued the project for two years, spending upwards of ten million dollars. Then rumors circulated that he wanted out, that perhaps he'd realized this new southern line might ultimately compete with his beloved New York Central.
Riding to his rescue came financier J.P. Morgan. Morgan had just toured Europe, where he'd found a total lack of confidence in American railroad stock. Morgan hoped to limit competition and so bring stability to the stocks. He planned a brokered peace between the feuding railroads, particularly the New York Central and the PRR. Pennsylvania Rail Road's president, George B. Roberts, at first wanted no part of a truce. He preferred to let Vanderbilt sway in the wind. Roberts boasted he'd "smash the South Penn like a bubble." In the end, on a hot July day in 1885, the belligerents met on a celebrated Hudson River boat trip aboard Morgan's yacht Corsair. A businessmen's truce ensued. The Pennsylvania Rail Road sold the West Shore line on the Hudson to Vanderbilt, while Vanderbilt abandoned his plans for the South Penn and dealt it to the PRR.
Notably absent from all these discussions were the public and government. This was the dinosaur age of free-roaming business tycoons, when laissez-faire government played little or no role in grand plans to build. The doomed South Penn Railroad, its tunnels and its gentle grades, lay abandoned for fifty years. The railroad to nowhere slept 60 percent complete. Only three miles of the total tunnel length had yet to be dug when Vanderbilt threw in the towel. Twenty-seven workers had died.
(Many of the same Pittsburgh investors of the South Penn, it's worth remembering, were members of a social club outside Johnstown, on the South Fork Reservoir. The socialites steadfastly refused to make repairs to the dam holding back their recreational lake. When the levee broke in 1889 a whole town was swept away, along with some 2,200 lives.)
Over the following four or five decades an occasional citizen would write to a newspaper or suggest to officials that some use be found for the nearly completed tunnels through the Alleghenies. A Somerset County man successfully ran for the state legislature in 1908 with this campaign slogan: "Finish the South Penn Railroad and Give Hundreds of Thousands of Men Employment."
Over the decades the neglected tunnels filled with water. They remained an obscure, half-flooded curiosity from the past.
The total failure of businessmen, greed and financiers wouldn't come until the 1930's depression. Things were so bad that members of the State Planning Board in 1934 approached the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, with the idea of creating jobs by building a superhighway along the abandoned route of the South Penn Railroad. The Pennsylvania turnpike, we shouldn't forget, was created to make work.
Harry Hopkins of the WPA liked the idea so much that he sold it to president Franklin Roosevelt, former governor of New York. Two New Yorkers, then, Vanderbilt and, much later, Roosevelt, built the Pennsylvania turnpike. Pennsylvania no longer was the financial capital it was in the early 1800s, due in no small part to De Witt Clinton's Erie Canal. Pennsylvanians would subsequently spend a lot of time crawling to New Yorkers for money.
Financing the turnpike with private funds proved impossible. An initial $60 million bond issue was so poorly received that it had to be withdrawn. Penelope Redd Jones writes in her book, "The single New York investment firm to bid on the purchase of $60 million turnpike bonds discovered there was no market for the securities." Dan Cupper, in his 1990 book The Pennsylvania Turnpike--A History, relates, "The project's magnitude wasn't really the problem — the $35 million Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco, a toll facility, was opened in May 1937. But, as one observer pointed out, bankers couldn't imagine a toll bridge 160 miles long. Nobody had ever built a toll highway of this length, cost and scale before, and it was not at all clear that it would or could pay for itself." Private investment firms didn't want to take a risk on the turnpike. Later, these timid spirits would benefit most handsomely from the toll road.
In the end, to make the project work, Roosevelt directed two New Deal agencies, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Public Works Administration, to respectively buy $35 million in turnpike bonds and issue $25 million in outright construction grants.
U.S. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes told the state turnpike chairman that Roosevelt's motivation wasn't merely jobs. Roosevelt saw war clouds. The American president thought a four-lane, limited-access superhighway over the Appalachian Barrier would greatly aid the flow of military supplies. By this time Adolf Hitler kept Germans hopping by constructing the autobahnen. To this day the degree of Hitler's influence on Pennsylvania's road system remains beyond the pale of polite conversation.
After almost a century and a half of public and private stumbling, high hopes to make jobs and dark fears to make war, Pennsylvanians finally got their road over the hill. Original turnpike projections promised to retire the road's debt in 1954. It was then to revert to the state highway system as a free road.
After all these years there remains the poetry of the Pennsylvania turnpike. The people loved their road, loved the idea of building it, of living near it.
To say the project was put on a fast track is an understatement. On October 10, 1938, the federal government gave final financial approval. The first contract was advertised four days later. Bids were received on October 26 and the contract was awarded the same day. Ground had to be broken the following day to comply with a Public Works Administration deadline. God dwells in details: the turnpike commission didn't yet control an inch of right-of-way.
"We did not have a single acre of right-of-way at that hour," turnpike chairman Jones later recollected. "But through the efforts of the commission's general counsel, John D. Faller, the problem was solved. He rushed over into Cumberland County and related the story to the owner of a certain farm through which we had laid out the right-of-way and received permission to proceed.
"We drove out to this farm where 200 or 300 of the farmers and the neighboring people gathered on the spot where we turned the first shovel of earth. As we walked up the hill a lady came forward. Her name was Mrs. Eberly, the wife of the farmer on whose land we were starting. She had five children, ranging in age from two to ten years, clinging to her. She wanted the autograph of each member of the commission and of the PWA and RFC representatives.
"I said to her, 'Mrs. Eberly, why do you want these?' and her answer has been the inspiration from that day to this that has urged the commission on. She said, 'Mr. Jones, I want these autographs so that my children can say they saw history being made that day when the greatest highway, a new era of road building, was started.'"
We should keep in mind that Pennsylvania's politicians always considered patronage and jobs at the heart of the turnpike, even before its inception. "Because of the huge sums of money involved," writes Dan Cupper, "some back-alley battles broke out over how the project would be financed, and who would do the work." The WPA originally wanted to carry out the entire construction project, but the Pennsylvania highway contractors' group objected. The private contractors finally got the work. The awarding of jobs and the issue of who gets to award them are as much a part of the turnpike's heritage as the concrete that was poured.
Thousands of workers came into the mountains to work on the road. At least one of the men was documented to have worked on Vanderbilt's South Penn. So had one of the contractors -- Mason & Hanger of New York City. Accommodations were in such short supply that some workers and their families lived in tents.
It turned out to be practical to use only six of the nine long-neglected and flooded tunnels. Crews instead dug one new tunnel and a record-breaking deep cutaway. Some close to the project later suggested that the mystique of using the abandoned tunnels had been more of a ploy to sell the project to the public than a necessity.
President Franklin Roosevelt may have had an appointment with destiny, but he didn't have an appointment to dedicate his child, the Pennsylvania turnpike. It was 1940, an election year. Roosevelt was campaigning for his controversial and unprecedented third term, and party rivalry kept him at bay. (When he'd attempted to pack the U.S. Supreme Court, opponents pointed out that Roosevelt sought more power than a good man should want, and more than a bad man should have.) The polio-crippled president ironically missed the one photo opportunity -- cruising down the first modern super highway -- that would have lent itself to his remaining in his car. "No dedication was in sight," writes Dan Cupper of the political delay, "and bondholders began to point out to the commission that every day the superhighway remained closed was another day without revenue to retire its debt." Cupper notes that commission chairman Walter Jones was forced to announce an opening date with "no ribbon cutting, no ceremony, no FDR." We shouldn't forget that the Pennsylvania turnpike, the blatant child of politics and patronage that it was, had no baptism. Roosevelt, the master politician of our century, chose to show political restraint, and demurred from attending.
In books and magazines we can still read about the poetry and romance of driving the Pennsylvania turnpike when it was new. Hundreds of motorists in cars and trucks queued up at the opening hour, midnight, October 1, 1940, to be among the first to drive, hitchhike and see the new road, to take their kids on it. Old fashioned bias-ply tires blew out, engines blew up, all unable to take the sustained high speeds of 75, 85, 95 mph and more. (There was no enforced speed limit.) A few motorists were so entranced they forgot to check the gas gauge and ran out of fuel. People were agog to see the future of highways. The smooth, four-lane divided roadway. The gentle grades and curves. The sweeping entrance and exit ramps. Then there were those futuristic, hexagonal toll booths. It all seemed like something out of the '39 World's Fair. Best of all, in the minds of some, were those stone service plazas encasing those sparkling Howard Johnson's. Could it get any better? (Howard Johnson's, by the way, subcontracted the right to operate its ten turnpike restaurants from the Standard Oil Company, which won the competitive bid for automotive and food services.)
People loved the road. An average of 6,000 vehicles rode the turnpike each of the first four days it was open. There were great traffic tie-ups around all entrances. The toll for the entire 160-mile route from Middlesex to Irwin was $1.50. The turnpike commission had expected only about 3,500 cars a day, while a more cautious U.S. Bureau of Public Roads guessed a mere 715 would pay the penny-a-mile toll.
Truckers loved the highway. It shaved as much as six hours, and twenty gallons of fuel, from the old route. The turnpike proved endlessly easier and safer to negotiate over the mountains than the old serpentine, two-lane, Rt. 30 Lincoln Highway.
All this seems like it happened not only in another time, but in another world, peopled with friendlier beings than us. In late 1992, as I visited libraries to read about the history of the turnpike, several news stories concerning the road caught my attention. The magic clearly was gone.
A national truckers' magazine, Overdrive, surveyed its 90,000 eighteen-wheeled readers in 1992 and announced that the Pennsylvania turnpike had been voted the second worst road in the nation. Only New York City's Cross Bronx Highway was less liked by truckers. The survey had asked the freight haulers to rank America's byways by "road condition, congestion, etc."
This announcement seemed to rock the turnpike commission. A damage-control news conference was convened. A turnpike spokesman bristled that the simple explanation for the survey was that the truckers didn't like to pay a fair toll. "It takes an unfair shot at the commission and the state of Pennsylvania," Michael Kennedy, the commission's deputy executive director for marketing, told reporters. He complained that the magazine didn't put forth specific complaints. "We don't do everything right, but if we don't know how to correct (problems), it doesn't do us any good."
The intriguing question remained: why had so many professional drivers given the turnpike a thumbs down? It was more than philosophical musing. Tolls in the 1990s earn the turnpike about $270 million a year, and even a 1 percent drop due to bad publicity could prove disastrous, said turnpike executive director John Sokol. Several expansion projects are underway, and there's more than a billion dollars in bond debt to be serviced.
No doubt part of the truckers' grudge is the toll. Since 1986 it's increased 60 percent. It now costs your average five-axle, 31 to 40-ton truck $79.95 to drive from Ohio to New Jersey, a far cry from the $3 to $10 truck toll for the 160 miles on the original road in 1940.
The commission fired back with conflicting poll results. A 1991 Pennsylvania State University poll of 829 people found 83.9 percent of state citizens had a favorable opinion of the Pennsylvania turnpike.
My head swimming with poll numbers, I became as much of a numskull as these statistic slingers. I asked one friend why she thought it was so many truckers disliked the turnpike. She looked at me as though I'd become detached from reality.
"That's not hard," she said. "Why don't you like to drive on the turnpike?"
"I don't like to pay the toll," I answered honestly. "Not when I can take another road for free." I warmed to her question. "And the gas always seems much more expensive. And the fast food at the service plazas -- Hardee's or Burger King or whatever they are these days -- is always more expensive, and is always cold and terrible." Another friend volunteered that the road was lousy with cops.
Most of these complaints would be true of any limited-access toll road. Sensing some deeper problem, I began to notice popular dissatisfaction with America's first superhighway. People didn't seem to appreciate it anymore. They certainly didn't want to live near it. An article in the Philadelphia paper intoned there was such a weak market for real estate that properties near the turnpike and other major highways might not be good investments. Resale values along the turnpike might be down as much as 30 percent, the paper warned. Noise presumably was part of the problem. Tall concrete walls erected over the years to serve as noise barriers along stretches of the road don't help much, nor do they solve the marketability problem, readers were advised.
Not long afterward a Harrisburg television station aired an interview with a mid-state woman who was up in arms about a turnpike expansion project near her home. The road was already too busy, too noisy, and had taken too much land, she told TV land. What was the idea of expanding it more? The TV crew taped a shot of the road as seen from her house at night. A never-ending stampede of cars and trucks roared by. Where did they come from, where do they go?
I couldn't help thinking of the Eberlys, those starry-eyed farm souls who in 1938 had allowed the turnpike commissioners to celebrate groundbreaking on their land even though no legal right-of-way had yet been granted. Today those people would be locked up in the happy farm.
We are certainly a more jaded and jaundiced people than we were in those days. We are a lot harder to impress and wow.
The turnpike's deputy executive director for marketing says general griping isn't good enough, that the commission must have specific criticism to solve problems. Over the next several months I began listening to people who worked on, and drove, the turnpike. The portrait that began to emerge was of a turnpike commission that was politically out-of-control, oblivious even to U.S. Supreme Court rulings, living in a bureaucratic dream world, catering to the whims of greedy politicians and family factions, and desperately out of touch with the people it proposed to serve.
Editor's note: This essay originally appeared as Chapter 3 of When the Levee Breaks by William Keisling.