Friday, June 22, 2007

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

Known as America's first super-highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike realized what was promised at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, where General Motors depicted the fabulous world of 1960. In GM's "Futurama" exhibit, a major topic in my Rhetoric and Public Life course, fair-goers were promised a world of limited-access interstates that would crisscross the continent, bypassing congested cities and bringing progress to the nation. In 1940 that dream was fixed in a concrete toll road: a (mostly) four-lane highway stretching 160 miles from Middlesex (west of Harrisburg) to Irwin (east of Pittsburgh). In terms of size and ambition, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first of its kind in the United States.

No longer would motorists meander around curvy hills with limited sight-distances. The Pennsylvania Turnpike promised broad roads, limited curves, and level grades. As a result, motorists could zip along straightaways at 100 miles per hour, if their tires could handle that speed. Phil Patton writes in Highway: America's Endless Dream that the Turnpike was built to accommodate automobiles that had not yet been built. As a result, this road became a symbol of tomorrow.

Designed in the waning days of the Depression, the Turnpike was primarily a make-work program, transforming old railroad grades and tunnels into the new super-highway project. One early Turnpike postcard reports that 51,345 "man years of direct and indirect employment" were dedicated to the road's construction. The Second World War halted extensions of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but the idea had been fixed in the American consciousness. And after the war, the U.S. saw an explosion of roadbuilding that culminated with the post-1956 interstate highway system and the subsequent rise of omnitopia. Roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike transformed the United States -- for good and for ill -- into so much of what it is today.

Learn More: Pennsylvania Highways Turnpike history page

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