BREEZEWOOD, PA (AP) Picture Pennsylvania in the satellite view: A banner of treetops stretched between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Curling east to west through the center of the state is the silver ribbon of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The ribbon of road disappears into the cities and emerges on the ridgetops of the Allegheny Mountains.
Curiously, snippets of it show up west of center — between Breezewood and Hustontown, in rural Bedford and Fulton counties. There, 11 mi. of roadway curve alongside the turnpike through the Buchanan State Forest.
This ghostly section of highway was closed to traffic in November 1968, eliminating two tunnels: the shortest and the longest tunnels of the original superhighway.
The Turnpike Commission deeded an 8.5-mi. portion of this remote stretch to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy in 2001 for $1.
On Wednesday, May 25, a master plan for what is now known as the Pike to Bike Trail was presented to the conservancy’s trail advisory committee.
“The Pike To Bike is a very doable, very feasible addition to the national rails-to-trails system,” said Bob McKinley, who heads up the project for Fulton County. McKinley has worked on five rail trails in his career, including the Youghiogheny trail in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Funding needs and sources will be at the top of the master plan, according to Ryan Nemanic, the conservancy’s assistant project manager for Pike to Bike. Nemanic works 40 hours a week as an Americorps volunteer assigned to the conservancy. Americorps is a national service organization that helps communities with staffing.
The master plan will give priority to ways to develop the trailheads and to safeguard the two tunnels which make the trail unique, said Nemanic.
Ray’s Hill, at 3,512 ft., is the shortest tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It lies near the western terminus of the trail, near the current toll booths in Breezewood.
Sideling Hill, at 6,791 ft., is the longest tunnel on the turnpike. It ends approximately a mile from the designated eastern trail head at Hiram (near Hustontown) in Fulton County. Route 30 (the historic Lincoln Highway) crosses over this tunnel now, as does Route 915.
Only painted white lines remain of the former Cove Valley rest stop, now a likely choice for a formal western trail head. A pile of dirt marks the former site of an orange-roofed Howard Johnson restaurant that served fried clams, ice cream cones and full-service meals to travelers in the early years of the superhighway.
Hiking and biking on the roadbed and fishing on an adjacent Class A trout stream are possible public uses now, according to Nemanic, who said that horseback riders, rollerbladers and even skateboarders could be designated users of the trail in the future. Most likely, one 12-ft. lane will be paved and the rest will be left to natural decay, said McKinley.
Abandoned roads are hard to come by, said Nemanic, and this segment is now used by the Army Reserve for convoy training, said Nemanic. “Where else can you use a long stretch of road without stopping traffic?”
Nemanic suggested strongly that people contact the conservancy office if they want to explore the formally unopened trail. The conservancy Web site lists the dates when the military convoys will be using the roadbed.
“Right now, you travel at your own risk,” said McKinley. “Until a formal trail is designated, there are no bathrooms and mother bear crosses over now and then.”
The temperature inside the two tunnels, which were dug in the late 19th century, is approximately 60 degrees, according to McKinley. It’s dark. Sideling Hill tunnel is more than a mile long, with reflectors at road level. But the traditional 3-ft. grade allows only a pinpoint of light at the far end, should you walk through without a flashlight.
The conservancy’s deed covers a 10-ft. median strip, four 12-ft. lanes and 100-ft. rights of way on each side of the roadbed. However, the proximity to the existing turnpike provides one advantage on the seemingly remote trail: cell phone coverage is available.
The conservancy, with help from the PA Turnpike Commission, has compiled a history that will be presented in a Visitors Center at the trail head in the future. The history, according to Nemanic, is this:
In 1880, William Vanderbilt started the construction of the South Penn Railroad to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PR). Andrew Carnegie helped with this competing railroad, because he too felt the PR was charging him too much money for transportation between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
They completed the digging of the seven tunnels, but not the railroad roadbed (which can still be seen near the roadway) when Vanderbilt went broke and died in 1885. South Penn Railroad died with him.
When the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was created in 1937, the nation was recovering from the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported construction of the PA Turnpike because it fell right into his plan to lower unemployment through his Works Progress Administration. The project employed 1,100 engineers and 15,000 workers and 155 construction companies, according to the turnpike Web site.
The time was right and the original 160-mi. of highway (between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh) was completed in 1940 within a record-breaking two years, helped by the availability of the tunnels to expedite the crossing of the Allegheny Mountains.
The four-lane highway merged into two-lane tunnels at a speed limit of 35 mph. Bottlenecks were routine by the 1960s. And so, Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill were bypassed and closed in 1968. They were boarded shut until acquired by the conservancy in 2001.
The new project, a superhikeway, may take eight to 15 years to complete.