From Railroad to Turnpike

In October 1988 the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of construction on Pennsylvania's first super-highway. October 1990 will mark the similar anniversary of the turnpike 's official opening to traffic. Probably few of those who travel the turnpike today are aware that the route was originally planned as a railroad and that after two years of construction in the 1880's, the project lay abandoned for fifty-three years before the Turnpike Commission revived it.

The story of the efforts of New York Central Railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt to construct the South Penn Railroad to compete with the mighty Pennsylvania in its home territory has been told by William H. Shank in his Vanderbilt's Folly and in articles in Railroad Magazine and Trains Magazine. An even more detailed treatment is currently under preparation by Paul Westhaeffer, author of History of the Cumberland Valley Railroad. It is not the intent of this little report to vie with or to digest those accounts but rather to bring out some aspects of the 1883-85 project which may not be common knowledge.

What first interested the writer in the South Penn was a series of articles by David Fernsler, Associated Press correspondent, which appeared in the Harrisburg Telegraph in March and April 1935. Fernsler traced the route of the never finished railroad from Harrisburg to McKeesport, spending ten days and nights in the field, locating tunnels, fragments of right-of-way, and interviewing residents who still remembered the project. His series probably had a considerable part in arousing interest in the railway route as an "all-weather highway."

At the time of Fernsler's series this author was still in college. With several friends he explored the old tunnels on several trips in 1936 and 1939. The eastern approach to Blue Mountain Tunnel was on an easier grade than the present highway and therefore lies higher on the mountain than the turnpike. The steeper gradient permissible for highway use causes the same relationship at all of the tunnel approaches. One bushwacked toward the tunnel from the east, breaking out through close-grown brush, and there, a couple hundred feet away, found the beautiful stonework of the almost complete tunnel portal. The party walked in the tunnel as far as one could still see, but subsequent explorations at several of the other tunnels found them to be mostly flooded to a depth of at least several feet by reason of earth slumped in at the portals.

There are still eight stone piers standing on the Cumberland County side of the Susquehanna River, which were to carry the South Penn to its connection with the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad at Harrisburg. The entire set of piers, extending all the way across the river, was completed in 1885, ready for bridge steel, the remainder having been taken down in later years for the stone that was in them.

The route of the South Penn thro Lemoyne and into Lower Allen Township approximated the route later used by the Philadelphia, Harrisburg & Pittsburgh (later the Reacting Company and now Conrail), but the exact route up the Cumberland Valley is not known to this writer, as such relatively light grading as would have been required was not to be contracted until late in the project.

As it went west, the South Penn route clung quite close to the divide between the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds, thus eliminating major bridges, except for the Susquehanna crossing. However, such location made for extensive earthwork, and even though long sections of such earthwork were well advanced, the cost of expanding the work to accommodate a four-lane highway would have been excessive. Consequently, the turnpike follows a route with steeper grades, out in the valley. About five miles of heavy grading west of Burnt Cabins lies along the north slope of Scrub Ridge. A number of well-constructed stone culverts still survive in this section, some under completed fills, some still exposed. Unfortunately, some of the deep cuts and fills have now become garbage dumps.

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