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Road of Tomorrow: The Pennsylvania Turnpike

Jeffrey Syken

Visitors to the “Highways & Horizons” exhibit within General Motors’ Futurama pavilion at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair were given a glimpse, albeit in scale model form, of the future American highway twenty years hence (1960). It was the most popular exhibit at the fair and each visitor was given a pin upon exiting with these simple, but compelling words: "I Have Seen the Future". Indeed they had, for many of the elements of the presentation model would be adapted to the American Highway in future years. However, if the motorist of that era wanted to actually experience the “Road of Tomorrow,” they need only travel the 160 miles between Irwin and Carlisle, PA on “America’s Super Highway”: The Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Ironically, the New York World’s Fair and its Futurama were winding down in the fall of 1940 when the Turnpike opened on October 1st 1940. Perhaps it was a good omen since immediately, the volume of traffic on the Turnpike was many times what its critics forecast. The Turnpike came to be known also as “America’s Tunnel Highway” since it passed through no less than seven tunnels to breach the formidable barrier of the Appalachian Mountains. These tunnels had begun (none were ever “holed through”) as part of the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Begun in 1884, this road was meant to compete directly with the Pennsylvania Railroad by connecting industrial Pittsburgh with Harrisburg – the state capital.

Alas, the SPRR came to an ignoble demise by 1885 and the roadbed and tunnels lay dormant and neglected. With the rise to prominence of the car and truck by the 1920s and the need for good, safe highways, the idea of actually building a “super highway” in America would bear fruit by the late 1930s. Following roughly the same route as the SPRR, the motorist/trucker would save 9K feet of vertical climb as compared with the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30) route through the Appalachians. As well, it would be a limited access, modern divided highway without any cross traffic allowing the motorist to travel at high speed in all weather. WWII would put a damper on automobile travel, but with the peace came an expansion of the Turnpike system; on-going to the present day. Many of the original features of the Turnpike have been repaired, replaced, upgraded, bypassed, twinned and even abandoned, but it still lays claim to being the first step in uniting these United States with the Roads of Tomorrow.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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