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Road to Nowhere: The Uphill Climb of Preserving Pennsylvania’s Abandoned Turnpike

August 29, 2016
abandoned turnpike
Adam EwingA cyclist pauses on Pennsylvania’s stretch of abandoned turnpike known as the Pike2Bike.

On a rugged Allegheny mountainside in south-central Pennsylvania winds a ribbon of pavement that’s stuck in time. Shielded as much by a canopy of trees as an eerie mystique, the road is slowly yielding to nature’s reclamation. Grassy medians long ago spilled their banks, and oaks and maples have gained a firm foothold, interrupting the once-treeless line of sight.

Nearly half a century has passed since this abandoned section of Pennsylvania Turnpike last saw traffic. In the interim, it has come to resemble a scene from a postapocalyptic novel. Relics of past infrastructure—divided lanes, manholes, culverts—belie the road’s incongruous state, as if human time stopped while nature kept going.

And yet, all isn’t as it seems. Far from forgotten, the dystopian landscape sees regular use by area pedestrians and cyclists. And if this committed cadre of citizens has their way, they’ll not only halt the creep of decay, they’ll turn this forlorn stretch of highway into a destination that shows just how powerful a force outdoor recreation can be.

*****

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, a 360-mile stretch of tolled highway linking the commonwealth’s eastern and western borders, is everything the modern motorist expects from an interstate: fast, stark, well-used, convenient. Exactly what planners had in mind when they built the road more than seven decades ago.

When it opened in 1940, the turnpike was a marvel of human dominion over nature. Until then, vehicle traffic through the steep Alleghenies—or any stretch of mountains, for that matter—was a precarious feat. Accidents were common on even the best of roads, none of which were graded, meaning they absorbed, rather than shed, rain and snow. Downed trees and rock falls made routes all but impassable. The dangerous, snaking paths were insufficient for local drivers, much less for burgeoning interstate commerce.

So when the newly formed Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission began planning a road that would overcome these hurdles, they were drawn to a fortuitous artifact of the railroad age: a 150-mile path through the mountains that had been surveyed and graded in the 1880s. Before deciding to halt development due to a competing and pre-existing rail line, William Henry Vanderbilt, the property’s owner, had blasted tunnels through the Allegheny sandstone—a time- and money-saving boon some 50 years later.

With this head start, the Pennsylvania Turnpike took 15,000 men two years to build. The country’s first superhighway, the turnpike shortened travel time between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh by three hours, serving commuters and commercial truckers alike. Ridership grew exponentially from opening day on, and within 20 years, the turnpike was congested most of the time. Traffic stacked up for hours, up to 5 miles deep at each tunnel, which bottlenecked to two lanes from the open road’s four.

Planners knew the turnpike needed a retrofit. In most spots, upgrades were straightforward. Workers simply blasted a new tunnel parallel to the existing one. But the terrain surrounding the Sideling Hill and Rays Hill tunnels on the turnpike’s eastern half was trickier. Engineers deemed it structurally impractical to double those tunnels, so they went with plan B. Sidestepping the hills entirely, they designed and built a bypass the same length as, but just south of, the original route. In 1968, 13 miles of state-of-the-art highway became, for all intents and purposes, history.

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Murray Schrotenboer estimates he has pedaled the abandoned turnpike hundreds of times. “There’s nothing like this anywhere,” he says.

The owner of Grouseland Tours, an outfitter guiding bicycle excursions in and around Clearville, Pa., Schrotenboer leads about 100 clients a year on the decommissioned span of interstate known locally as the Pike2Bike.

“I discovered this place in 1997, but a lot of people had found it before me,” he says. In those pre-Google Maps days, Schrotenboer was looking for new places to ride when he came across a topographical map mentioning the abandoned turnpike and its tunnels. It took him a while to find the then-unmarked road. After traversing the paved sections, he found himself standing before a darkened tunnel with no light and no inkling of its length or what might lurk inside.

“It was one of the few times in my life when my mind was saying, Don’t do this, but I did it anyway,” Schrotenboer says. The risk paid off. He loved what he found, and two years later he helped establish Friends of Pike2Bike, a group that promotes the abandoned turnpike’s conversion into a public recreational trail.

By the time Schrotenboer first pedaled the Pike2Bike, it had long been the secret haunt of a handful of locals who saw it as quirky place to explore. Although the Pike2Bike is officially closed, all parties with jurisdiction over it—Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (SAC), which now owns the land; Friends of Pike2Bike, which looks after it; and local law enforcement in Bedford and Fulton counties—acknowledge it as a use-at-your-own-risk trail. Only a 5-mile stretch is fully off-limits, and while gated access points prevent motorized vehicles from entering the remaining 8 miles, they don’t hinder the pedestrians and bicyclists who flock here each year.

Outdoor lovers grew fond of the Pike2Bike early on, often for the same reason it was beloved by 1950s Thunderbirds: a paved route offering easy access deep into the mountains of Pennsylvania. But its use has extended beyond recreationists. In the early 2000s, the military conducted ambush-response training on-site, and researchers tried out new transportation safety features, such as reflective paint. The desolate pavement also makes a killer setting for silver-screen drama, and Hollywood came calling, too, filming a haunting scene from the 2009 movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Through it all, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission retained ownership of the land until 2001, when it sold the Pike2Bike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy for $1.

“We turned this property over for the express purpose of converting this into a bike and hike trail, something we’ve long advocated,” says Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the commission. “We believe it’s a unique asset and a unique recreational experience.”

But in the decade-and-a-half since the stretch of highway changed hands, its recreational development has been slow. SAC initially refused the $1 sale but relented when another conservation group agreed to help manage the property. When the turnpike commission provided no funds to support the transition, the second organization backed out, leaving SAC holding the reins. Through the years, budget cuts have left SAC with no staff and a virtually nonexistent operating budget.

“Our obligation is to hold the turnpike in perpetuity and allow it to be open for public recreation,” says Jim Eckenrode, the chair of SAC’s board. “Unfortunately, we currently do not have the financial capability or staff to do that.”

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Enter Don Schwartz. A planner in Bedford County, home to the western end of the Pike2Bike, Schwartz has spent years mustering public support. “This isn’t just a trail, it’s a destination,” he says. Despite his passion, Schwartz acknowledges that, early on, his boosterism fell on deaf ears.

Demographics of the rural communities surrounding the turnpike skew toward those who might not be regular users—modest-income retirees, for instance. Several county commissioners also had philosophical objections, reasoning that developing a recreational resource was outside the government’s scope.

And then, of course, there’s the question of funding. “Some folks are rightly concerned about the cost,” Schwartz says. Without money to put toward research, he doesn’t have a hard estimate, but Schwartz figures a price tag in the millions, with no clear source for capital.

What is certain is that Bedford and Fulton counties can’t foot the bill by themselves. “Our concern has been the expense of developing and maintaining the turnpike, and how that might affect our tax base,” says Rodney McCray, a Fulton County commissioner. Even so, he says, residents are on board, as long as the project doesn’t adversely affect them. “We are a farming-based community, very rural,” he says. “We want to maintain a pristine environment around the turnpike. Something like a big resort or hotel [which have been proposed by outside parties] would not go over well with our constituents.”

To begin to address the trail’s ailing infrastructure, Schwartz says an initial investment would go toward patching the parts of the trail that are currently impassable and constructing basic amenities, such as parking, bathrooms, and unobtrusive signage. He also envisions lights for the tunnels, which have been deemed structurally sound by a professional engineer but are only illuminated by natural light—and then only at their entrances. Following these outlays, an annual operating budget would need to be established to pay for upkeep and a caretaker. While Schwartz concedes it’s an expensive endeavor, “The key to creating support for this project is economic impact,” he says.

Today, some 5,000 to 10,000 people visit the Pike2Bike annually. A 2014 economic impact study found that enhancements could increase that usage tenfold, generating more than $5 million a year from people who dine, gas up, and find lodging in nearby communities. A master plan sponsored by Bedford County is scheduled to conclude next year, giving policymakers a better idea of costs, as well as a range of options for development.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that while there’s not consensus on how to improve the Pike2Bike or how to pay for it, there’s virtually no local opposition to the idea of maintaining the trail. Beyond the economic benefits, all parties embrace the chance to connect with the outdoors. Mark Zakutansky, AMC’s Mid-Atlantic policy director based in Bethlehem, Pa., points to the success of the Great Allegheny Passage, part of a 150-mile series of rail-to-trails connecting Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. That path winds through numerous small towns where hikers and bikers spend money, and gives both residents and visitors a link to the region’s industrial heritage. “To be able to use abandoned infrastructure for healthy recreation is a positive for everyone,” Zakutansky says.

*****

It’s a clear autumn afternoon when Schrotenboer and Schwartz set out for a ride on the Pike2Bike. Save for Ari Schulman, another cyclist whom the pair happens across, the trail is quiet today, although the faint crescendo of 18-wheelers from the active turnpike nearby serves as a reminder of why cyclists have access to this hidden gem.

Schulman says he learned about the trail after seeing The Road, and although he has frequently cycled in and around Washington, D.C., a two-hour drive away, this is his first visit to the trail. He’s a fan of its gentle grade, which never exceeds 3 percent, but what drew him here was something the city can’t offer. “When I’m biking, I usually just want to get away,” he says. “This is it. I get a sense for the thrill of discovery.”

Here, at the intersection of backcountry and domestication, an air of wonder abounds. Mixed hardwoods stand in silent greeting, and the subtle signs of a well-used wilderness—flitting birds, whitetail buck rubs, fox scat—are visible to those who care to look for them. When the trees break at points along the road’s northwestern edge, sweeping and stunning glimpses appear of the farmland below.

The Pike2Bike has a few blemishes, of course. Decades of disrepair have spoiled patches of pavement, making for spurts of rough riding. Graffiti artists have long since appropriated tunnel entrances, leaving messages that might abrade delicate sensibilities. While no instances of violent crime have been reported, it’s wise to visit in pairs, if only to ensure help in case of injury—a scenario that became reality when a local teenager suffered a bad fall after scrambling up a tunnel’s mouth several years back.

The key to the Pike2Bike’s success lies in finding a balance between the necessary improvements to the old highway and the abandoned aspect that draws people to it. Schulman cautions that too much development might change what he calls “the grown-over character of the place,” or what makes it unique from the average trail.

Schrotenboer agrees. “The oldest person I’ve led here is 85,” he says. “The youngest is 6. Any given day, you’ll find families out for a leisurely afternoon or serious road bikers who want to ride somewhere they’ve never been before.”

It’s that allure of the unknown—a once and future final frontier—that has kept the turnpike not so abandoned after all.


LEARN MORE

Find eight hikes in spots reclaimed by nature in Get Out.

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Ben Swenson

Ben Swenson is a journalist based in Williamsburg, Va. Read more of his writing about cultural and historic sites where nature is reasserting its dominion on his blog, abandonedcountry.com, a companion to his book in progress.