For the past ten Christmases we’ve driven to the Baltimore area to spend the holiday with our daughter’s family. The trip there or back from Baltimore to Chicago usually takes about 10 hours or so by car; an easily achieved trip in one day but even easier when broken up into two days. Just this past Christmas the Hubby and I took an alternate route going north from Baltimore to drop off something in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania a little northwest of Philadelphia before heading home. This trip allowed us to travel from the east end of Pennsylvania to the furthest west end of the state along Interstate Highway 76. On the trip to our daughter’s home we go through only one tunnel on I-76 near Summit, PA but this longer route took us through 5 tunnels; one under the waterways in Baltimore and four in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
It got me thinking about the age of these tunnels and what an engineering marvel they must have been when originally planned and built. Today just surf YouTube for tunnel boring machines and you can watch huge machines boring holes in the earth for all sized tunnels with seeming ease. What must it have been like to use manpower – men with shovels and picks, not huge machines to dig a tunnel a mile long through a mountain? I can only imagine.
I always thought these tunnels were a WPA project but I could find no information leading to that conclusion except the date they were started, late 1930’s, which was a time of tremendously large infrastructure projects funded by the US Federal Government. Just looking at these tunnels you can see the age, the years of use and abuse in addition to the continual need for upgrading. They started building the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930’s using revenue bonds to finance and continue through today with updates and improvements.
I don’t know about you but, driving through a long tunnel gives me the creeps…especially those that go under water. It brings a little claustrophobic feeling to the surface and I am suddenly holding a silent countdown to the other side. The tunnel we go through most often is the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel near Summit PA and over a mile long. This tunnel was originally only one tunnel with a lane in either direction but since the 1960’s it has two parallel tunnels both two lanes in the same direction, both the same length, and both equally impressive feats of engineering. Numerous times we have driven through rain or snow on one side of the mountain only to exit to bright sunshine and dry roads on the other side of the mountain.
This past December was the first time I had the opportunity to go through all the tunnels on I-76 in one trip. They all have pretty much the same building style, squared off flat ceiling instead of a curved dome top; made of solid concrete discolored with years of truck and car exhaust. The walls are covered with white subway tile to reflect as much light as possible and lit with bright fluorescent lighting. The outside of all the tunnels have a half circle arch entry and exit with the name of the tunnel on the facade.
Toward the eastern side of the mountains, the Kittatinny Mountain and Blue Mountain tunnels are separated by only 600 feet so they seem almost adjacent to each other. When driving through the first one at 55mph you barely get out of it when you enter the next one. Each of these tunnels is just under a mile in length. Near Huntingdon and Franklin counties the Tuscarora Mountain tunnel is also a mile long. The final tunnel, Allegheny Mountain Tunnel near Summit PA, the one we drive through every time we go to the east coast completes the four accessible tunnels in the I-76 Pennsylvania Turnpike system.
This past December, we were driving late in the afternoon, nearing dusk or early evening when going through these tunnels so our approach was mostly in the dark, then once inside the tunnel it was that familiar somewhat eerie feeling; dark and devoid of daylight, only illuminated by the overhead lights and our headlights without any light at the end of the tunnel. For me it always feels like we are driving downhill when going through any of the tunnels heading east or west. I know it makes no sense but inside a tunnel I loose all sense of my connectedness with the earth.
Most of the tunnels are old(70+ years old) and are on the docket to be replaced or bypassed. Repairing them does not seem feasible since these tunnels carry too much traffic each day. The traffic backups created by downsizing the tunnels to one lane in order to repair them would create too many problems so it seems bypassing them may be the only solution for these aging tunnels. If all four tunnels are bypassed it will be sad. Not just for just for the drive but for the memory of the hundreds of men that worked so diligently to create these marvels. For me it would mean no more terrifyingly exciting trips through a mountain. For others it could mean never having the chance to go through a huge mile long tunnel.
Just this week, the Pennsylvania Turnpike sent out a news release requesting public input in devising ways to keep the tunnels open while renovating them. For more information check their website HERE.
For information on the history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike check out their website’s History page.