Sunday, November 9, 2014

Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike/South Pennsylvania Railroad

The seven tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike are the result of a railroad that never was. Constructed between 1881-1885 by railroad magnate William Vanderbilt, who, allied with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, was eager to break the stronghold the Pennsylvania Railroad held on freight in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. 

Vanderbilt, already in control of many railroads including the New York Central, revived an unused charter of the defunct South Pennsylvania Railroad. This was in a competitive retaliation of the Pennsylvania Railroad gaining control of the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad which competed directly against Vanderbilts' New York Central. 

The South Pennsylvania Railroad originated in 1854 as the Duncannon, Landisburg and Broad Top Railroad. Around 1857 two miles were graded and that's as far as it got. The graded miles were sold in 1872 and its charter went dormant in 1879. 

Under Vanderbilt's control, the South Pennsylvania was surveyed in 1881 followed shortly by initial construction. The route chosen was incredibly difficult. Nine tunnels were needed as it crossed six mountain ridges. This huge obstacle along with sharp curves and steep grades made the cost of building the railroad astronomical. Work continued until 1885 when J.P. Morgan, one of Vanderbilt's financiers began to worry that another railroad would cause the freight rates to fall leading to a price war. This in turn could cause other interests Morgan was invested in to collapse. Morgan arranged a meeting between the representatives of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Vanderbilt. By the end of the meeting, an agreement had been reached. The Pennsylvania RR would sell its interests in the West Shore to Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt in return, would sell his majority in the South Penn to the PRR. By this point much work had been done building the tunnels (seven tunnels remained unfinished) and grading. However, a month after this deal was reached William Vanderbilt died and the courts ruled that the PRR's ownership of the South Penn constituted a monopoly.

 After this the unfinished South Pennsylvania was reverted to the State Of Pennsylvania. Carnegie tried unsuccessfully to revive interest in the South Penn in 1887 and 1899 using his own finances but it never transpired. The route lay unfinished and abandoned and was often referred to as "Vanderbilt's Folly". A small section was used for a short while by the Pittsburgh, Westmoreland and Pittsburgh Railroad in Somerset County, but nothing major happened until 1935 when the rail bed became the backbone of the Pennsylvania Turnpike design.

The grade was finally sold to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in 1938. The original route of the turnpike opened in 1940 and six of the tunnels were used. Much of the original grading was not used but the basic route was followed. This worked well until the 1950's saw much congestion on the original turnpike. After studying the issue the commission decided on a new alignment. Some of the tunnels were doubled, building another tunnel directly next to them, but the expense of doubling all the tunnels was too great. As a result 13 miles and two tunnels of the original turnpike were abandoned in 1968.

Today we rode out to Rays Hill Tunnel (3,532 feet) and Sideling Hill Tunnel, the longest of all the turnpike tunnels at 6,782 feet long. The other abandoned tunnel, the Laurel Hill Tunnel sits at the border of Westmoreland and Somerset Counties and is privately owned. The Laurel Hill was abandoned earlier than the others in 1964.

Heading off on the abandoned turnpike toward Rays Hill Tunnel.

John from Stuff That's Gone shooting a video. Hopefully it's available really soon.

Rays Hill Tunnel.

It seems so narrow. Modern trucks would have a hard time in this. Remember this was two direction traffic going through here.

Coming out of the eastern portal.

A couple old electrical boxes in a control room adjoining the tunnel.

Control room door.

Holes in the tunnel wall. Old conduit leads me to believe that these were electrical boxes too.

Looking back in toward the west. Lines are still painted on the road.

Eastern portal, Rays Hill Tunnel. You can see the light at the other end.

Heading east on the abandoned turnpike.

Approaching the enormous Sideling Hill Tunnel. This one is over a mile long.

The room above contains the massive exhaust fans.

Western portal Sideling Hill Tunnel.

A hole in the side of the tunnel at the entrance begged me to lay on my back and look in. Here you can see the ceiling and the "ribs" of the concrete arches.

One of the ribs.

More electrical box holes.

Over the hump in the Sideling Hill Tunnel. In the middle the tunnel arches to allow for water drainage.

Coming out the eastern portal.

Inside the control room. Sideling Hill Tunnel. Free Candy?

Nope, it's just an old stash of road salt.

This is in the exhaust room.

Two massive exhaust fans.

Another piece of abandoned machinery.

Maybe an old office.

Looking inside the massive air turbine.

In between the massive air turbines.

This strange hallway is downstairs from the air turbines. I'm assuming it's angled like this for air flow.

Another look at the turbine.

This is behind the angled room doors. This is on top of the ceiling above the old roadway. I'm not sure if it went the whole way across but I imagine it would. I wasn't walking over two miles to find out.

Looking down one of the air holes at the roadway.

Between the turbines facing east.

Another room below the exhaust room.

Outside a back door from the exhaust room.

The eastern portal of Sideling Hill Tunnel. And John.

Heading east.

This is the site of an old service plaza. Nobody was cooking today.

Looking west. Exit ramp on the right into the service plaza.

This is as far east as you can go.

A nice shot of the eastern portal of Sideling Hill Tunnel. All the fun machinery is located in that room above.

On the way back John noticed this in the woods. It appears to be a culvert under the original railroad grade.

Heading back to vehicles. Approaching Rays Hill Tunnel. Until next time abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike.....

An 1880's photo of the construction of Rays Hill Tunnel. The fellow in the middle of the photo to the left of the tracks is Andrew Carnegie.


  1. Thanks for the tours Mike--both are fascinating. Photography is excellent!

  2. Fascinating! I didn't know so much was accessible to investigate of the old PA Turnpike.
    Eric Johnson

    1. Yep, there's eight miles you're allowed on. It's like riding in a science fiction post- apocalyptic movie.

  3. My Great Great Grandfather Ralph Baggaley invested 1 million in South Penn Railroad.Long interesting story of a busy 68 year life.Thanks Mike for you hard work

  4. You have an immensely interesting web-site! I love Railroad history! I wish to visit these locations in the future! Once again, wonderful job on this site!

    1. Thanks Mark! I'm glad you're enjoying the site!

  5. I think this rr's & roads should be reclaimed & used asap.