The easiest way to get to the abandoned segment of the turnpike is to take I-76 to the Breezewood exit. Take Route 30 east about three miles until you see signs for Route 915 South. Turn LEFT (do not take 915) onto the unmarked gravel road and drive under I-76.
Decisions, decisions. Take a right here.
If you go left, this tempting-looking road winds up going over one of the tunnels and wrapping around the mountain. However, it's heavily marked "PRIVATE - NO OUTLET" and there's really no room to turn around.
Follow the dirt road (to the right) until you come to a decent-sized parking area. As you're heading down the hill, you'll catch teasing glimpses of the abandoned segment off to your left. If you go under a second underpass, you've gone too far.
We headed east towards Sideling Hill, the larger of the two tunnels. Road condition was surprisingly good, given the 40-some years of neglect.
Most of the concrete we encountered was in fair to poor condition. This bridge, for example - classic 1930's Americana, but not something I'd drive over.
What's that off in the distance? Why, it's the western entrance to the Sideling Hill tunnel, of course!
For the most part, the tunnels are in good condition. Rumors persist that "an engineering study" was done and found them "safe". However, no evidence of this study has been found. Moreover, once rebar begins to rust and pop away from the concrete, structural decay has generally begun. My entirely uneducated opinion is that the rock tunnels may be sound, but these concrete structures are iffy. Enter at your own risk.
The entrance itself. This shot does nothing to show the scale; the ceiling has to be at least 30 feet high.
Believe it or not, the tunnel is actually about 120 years old. It was originally bored out as a railroad tunnel in the late 1800s. If you peek behind the right panel, you can see the original rock face, some of the original supporting wood, and light from the outside.
Inside the tunnel is absolute darkness. Due to curvature and length, you can not see one end from the other inside. What little distant light you see here is actually daylight reflecting off the ceiling in the distance.
Behind every door lies a secret. This is the first-floor office at the western end of the tunnel. The door to the left goes to a storage room. We'll go through the other door in a moment. This room was filled with two inches of water.
Bullet-hole-ridden garage door leading into the ground office. Perhaps this was a garage instead.
Stairs leading to the second floor. Heavily rusted, but they seemed sound enough. Some of the other stairs were not as well kept.
Continuing up those same stairs to the second-floor office.
This is why I desperately want my Canon Powershot to come back from repair.
View out the second-story office window. Imagine this jammed with a ten-mile backlog of bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go traffic, and you'll see why they bypassed this two-lane tunnel in the 1960s, not even three decades of use years.
Second floor office, west end of Sideling Hill.
The third-floor office, right next to the machinery room. Note the large, helpful hole in the floor.
Looking from the third room down to me below and OH MY GOD I'M GOING BALD
Rusted electrical goodness.
Giant 1940s air handlers in all their rusty glory. There are four total: two at the east end and two at the west end. They sucked air in through the openings in the walls, blew it down the ventillation shafts, and forced air out of the tunnels. This prevented toxic exhaust buildups. But you already knew that.
Belt drive for the air handlers.
Detail of the turbine fins in one of the air handlers. I wanted to hook up a few dozen car batteries in series and see what happened, but nobody would help me carry them up.
The roof of the ventilation structure.
An odd V-shaped room. Looking back at the machinery room while walking towards the ventillation shafts.
The ventilation / maintenance shaft that runs above the entire length of the tunnel. This was a 30-second exposure using a red flashlight to sweep the room. There is no natural light up here. The floor is littered with holes large enough to fall through. The ceiling starts out at about nine feet, but gradually drops to three feet as you head towards the midway point on the tunnel. I must point out that this part of the tunnel is in no way "safe".
The ventillation & maintenance shaft, using a regular flashlight and long exposure to light the picture. This runs above the entire length of the tunnel, providing access for maintenance workers to work on the recessed road lights below. It appears that a set of custom-gauge railroad (not pictured) runs the length of the tunnel, presumably so the workers could wheel parts (and themselves) along. Large holes -- easily big enough to fall through -- are everywhere. We didn't realize how rusted out some of those supports were until after going our separate ways and reviewing the pictures. Yikes.
One of the many holes in floor of the ventilation / maintenance tunnel. These held the recessed lighting for the roadway below. Most of the fixtures are gone now, but these holes provide a rapid escape to the ground thirty feet below. This perspective gives no impression of how bad the drop is. At about two feet in diameter, this is one of the smaller holes. Unfortunately, given the pitch-black nature of the tunnel, there is no warning whatsoever of these guys. You can very easily step through.
What appears to be rail, presumably for a maintenance cart, runs the entire length of the northern half of the access way. I'm guessing that an electric or gas-powered cart ran the length of the tunnel, allowing workers to haul equipment back and forth. Note the discarded light fixtures on the left.
There was a fair amount of water flowing through the tunnel, both in the ventillation shaft above and the drainage shaft below.
There was graffiti everywhere. At least this one was different.
The lighting fixtures that we saw from the access tunnel above.
Rambo Jim spots an open access hatch about midway through the tunnel.
Naturally, he went inside. Personally I'm not a big fan of climbing around underneath a 120-year-old tunnel, but that didn't stop Rambo Jim.
We're all glad he took his camera, because there was some cool stuff under there. This crawlway / drainage ditch is about three feet high and runs the entire length of the tunnel. About three inches of water was flowing through.
Drainage tunnel running parallel under the roadway, looking east. Perspective is impossible to see; this tunnel is about two feet high from the bottom of the pipe to the water below. If you're going to be stupid and climb down in here, be aware of the possibility of sudden death due to flash flooding, collapse, entrapment, asphyxiation, vermin, or a dozen other things. There is a very real possibility (if not certainty) of pockets of toxic gas down there.
Drainage tunnel under the roadway, looking west. If you're going to be stupid and climb down in here, be aware of the possibility of sudden death due to flash flooding, collapse, entrapment, asphyxiation, vermin, or a dozen other things.
At the eastern entrance to Sideling Hill, we decided to take a tour of the access ramp.
The ventillation building from the outside.
Looking in at the giant air handlers from above. This picture doesn't begin to demonstrate their size; the chambers inside the drums must be at least as tall as the tunnel itself, as they go down quite a bit below the floor.
Some electrical switching equipment.
Looking through the ventillation slats eastward to the Turnpike beyond.
The slats had broken way (or been torn away) in this area. And I like this picture.
Diagonal, meet horizontal. Horizontal, diagonal.
Stairs leading into the machine room below.
We set off heading east to parts unknown. We knew that eventually we'd encounter the old Cove Hill plaza, but we weren't sure how far away it was.
For being exposed to the elements for 40 years, the road surface was in surprisingly good condition.
No barrier in the center median. The median seems wider in this area. I wonder if this section of road was rebuilt at some point.
Behold, Cove Hill. The service plaza used to sit on the left, while the turnpike continues to the right.
There isn't much left of it today. The State Police used to use part of this area for target practice.
Further detail of the road surface. Despite the best efforts of 40 years of Pennsylvnia winters, it's still largely in-tact.
Nature is slowly but surely attempting to reclaim her land.
After returning to the car to take a lazy hour for lunch, we decided to attempt to locate the west entrance. That's Route 30, just after passing the Ramada Inn in Breezewood. The embankments are what's left of the old turnpike bridge, which was removed several years ago to save on maintenance. Note that we were standing on PA Turnpike Commission property; the side of the road from which this picture was taken is not open to the public.
We didn't realize it at the time, but this area is owned by the PTC and is off-limits. What you see in the background is the Breezewood feeder to I-76. In that general area is the old Breezewood Turnpike interchange, easily visible from the current approach (it will be on your right as you enter Breezewood from I-76). In fact, the feeder itself is the old turnpike; the new interchange is built where the bypass splits from the original highway.
We re-parked at the base of the east embankment and began again. There's a small gravel area that looks like a parking lot. I'm not sure who owns it, so park at your own risk. The barriers you see here are to keep motor vehicles off the pike, though frankly, anyone who can get their vehicle up that embankment deserves to ride wherever they please.
The first thing we noticed was the dramatic difference in road quality on this side of Rays Hill. Whereas the other stretches were beginning to skirmish with nature, this stretch seemed to have a full-blown war on its hands. And nature was winning. This was taken from the median. Notice how the eastbound lanes (on the right) are seriously broken up by weeds.
Curiously, the other side (westbound travel) wasn't nearly as bad. You can see that some of this was paved more recently, but even the un-repaved stretches looked better on the west side.
Closed for liability purposes. The trail is "off-limits" (nudge nudge, wink wink).
An old turnpike bridge (circa late 1930s) spans a brand-new section of pavement. Note the old Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission logo.
Detail on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission logo carved into the bridge.
Behold! There, in the distance!
The Rays Hill approach is desperately fighting a losing battle against the encroaching shrubbery.
Part of this stretch was used for testing road reflectors in the 1980s. There were five different varieties of reflector embedded in the road at various points.
Detail of one of the reflectors. Pennsylvania doesn't use this kind, so apparently it didn't fare too well in the test. The engraving reads "STIMSONITE 94".
Another reflector type that we don't use.
Still ANOTHER reflector type that we don't use. This one must've been awful, as the reflector on every one of these guys is completely gone.
They also used this section of road to test out SNAP (Sonic Nap Alert Pattern) strips. Since SNAP was added to PA highways in 1991, I'm guessing that these were from the late 80s.
The Rays Hill tunnel appeared to be in better shape than the Sideling Hill tunnel. Curious, as the roads here were something awful.
Exposed concrete. Since the turnpike was originally entirely paved, I assume that this is the underlying foundation and not some ancient road surface. CORRECTION: Research revealed that the original surface was, in fact, concrete.
The western end of the control room was securely boarded up, so we proceeded east through the tunnel. This tunnel is much shorter than Sideling Hill, and you can see the eastern portal at the end.
Rays Hill tunnel, as lit by a red floodlight from about the midway point. Incidentally, this was one of the top contenders on a Farktography "Something Red" contest.
One of my favorite shots from inside the tunnel. Although this tunnel is only .6 mile long, it's still virtually pitch black inside.
Apologies for the focus. This is the eastern entrance to Rays Hill, looking west.
Although Rays Hill was generally in much better shape, this exposed rebar looked interesting.
Another one of my favorite photos from the set. A trio of mysterious indentations.
Just because there's a mysterious hole in the wall of a 70-year-old tunnel means that Jim has to go exploring.
Remnants of the "RAYS HILL" sign at the eastern portal. Standing here on a hot summer day was great, as a constant rush of cool, damp air was pouring out of the tunnel with impressive velocity. My guess is natural convection due to the temperature difference underground facilitated by the ventilation tunnel above.
It's not a particularly good picture, but this begins to give you an idea of the scale of the portal. By this point most of us had dead feet. Courtesy of my cheap Wal-Mart sneakers, I had the worst blisters I have ever seen and couldn't walk right for two weeks.
Mysterious horseshoe-like markings in the concrete.
When urban exploring, rusty doors are a dime a dozen. What's behind them? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes something. And sometimes, you get really lucky and find a room full of rusted electrical goodness.
Mystery pipes. I can only speculate that these were conduits leading to the exterior lights.
Sweet, sweet nectar. A virtual jackpot. I took some closer detail photos, but the focus was too terrible to share.
A telephone box. No foreign coins, though.
Looking out the Rays Hill control room window. Another one of my favorite shots.
Looking at the concrete barrier that helped funnel traffic down to two lanes (!) before entering the tunnel. Combine that with the sudden 35mph speed limit, and you can understand why all the tunnels were either bypassed or doubled up.
Some of the lighting previously used to illuminate the road heading into the tunnel.
As we continued walking east, the road slowly began to improve. If anyone has an explanation for the gradual change, I'd love to hear it.
The road markings were odd. Some parts had a white line against the median, while others had a yellow. Still others had a double white line, which I've never seen before in my life.
Man vs Wild
There is no shoulder anymore. The surrounding flora has taken over and is firmly entrenched.
There are mystery roads leading off into the surrounding woods every mile or so. I believe we've found a Super Secret Squirrel entrance in another location, but we're going to respect the wishes of the conservancy and keep my car off.
Some of the road decay typical of this secton.
The road pretty much stabilized about a mile after the tunnel.
Wooden skids covered some of the open drainage pits in the median. This was one of the rare skids that wasn't completely destroyed.
Ok, so when was the last time YOU got to sprawl out on a warm, sun-drenched, four-lane highway? Thought so.