The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Nation’s First Superhighway at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

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Gerald M. Kuncio


The Pennsylvania Turnpike is one of the most significant highways of the twentieth century. It proved so popular it was expanded across the state after World War II. Its design was both audacious and revolutionary: the nation’s first high-speed, long distance highway completely free of any at-grade crossings for its entire 160-mile length, with long entrance and exit ramps, super-elevated curves meant to be taken at high speeds, and a low grade despite crossing through the steepest part of Pennsylvania. And yet, the Pennsylvania Turnpike receives comparatively little attention in histories of infrastructure improvements made in the United States to accommodate the automobile and enhance the age of personal high-speed transportation that the auto initiated. Much scholarly work focuses on the development of the Interstate Highway System, inaugurated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. But the Pennsylvania Turnpike played a key role in the ultimate development of that system, demonstrating that long-distance, high-speed, limited-access automobile traffic was both possible and desirable and igniting a debate about whether such highways should be free to users or paid by tolls. Until recently, even the Hall of Transportation at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, meant to celebrate Pennsylvania’s role in transportation, gave the turnpike only perfunctory coverage.

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