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Cyclists await a highway in the wilds

81/2 miles of abandoned turnpike, two tunnels being readied for adventure

Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BREEZEWOOD -- So there he was a few years back, bicycle enthusiast Murray Schrotenboer, saddled up and out for a ride.

Schrotenboer was hunting a long-discarded stretch of Pennsylvania Turnpike that he'd discovered in the small print of a topographic map. Hidden from the beaten path, there it was: woods, mountains and 11 miles of empty, weathered, four-lane expressway.

"It was absolutely unique and truly exciting," Schrotenboer recounted.

That was for starters.

A mile-and-a-half down the road was abandoned Ray's Hill Tunnel, an unlighted, two-lane tube, two-thirds of a mile, bored through a 1,400-foot-tall mountain.

Four-and-a-half miles beyond that was Sideling Hill Tunnel, the length of 22 football fields, longest tunnel the turnpike ever had. It's an arrow-straight conduit so long that, because of a slight rise in the middle, you can't see end to end.

Schrotenboer summoned the moxie, walked his bike the 1.2 miles through the tunnel -- much of it midnight black, a chamber echoing every creak and shuffle, a burrow so cool that it breathes fog on summer days -- and emerged from the other end, ebullient.

"I thought, wow, that was the most bizarre and amazing thing I'd ever done," he said.

Soon -- maybe in a year or two, although nobody's saying for sure -- cyclists en masse will be able to share the bliss.

Thursday, 33 years after the Turnpike Commission closed the stretch, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy will pay the Turnpike Commission a dollar for 81/2 miles of the highway near the Bedford County border with Fulton County. Then the Bedford County-based conservancy plans to dust it off, fix it up and officially resurrect it -- tunnels and all -- as a public cycling and hiking trail.

How extensive the job will be, including whether the pocked roadway should be resurfaced and whether it's better esthetically to light Sideling Hill Tunnel or leave it dark, is still on the conservancy drawing board.

"It'll be the only trail of this sort with this length of tunnel and this historical background," said Branden Diehl, managing the job for the agency. "It's the nostalgia of seeing something that used to be but isn't anymore."

The now-abandoned roadbed was originally carved out for a railroad but carried the turnpike instead. In semiretirement, it hosted highway safety experts who wrecked cars for science and a crew that filmed a tire commercial in a tunnel.

It was the birthplace of the roadside rumble strips that alert drivers who drift onto the berm. And it was where local senior citizens volunteered to be driven through the dark of Sideling Hill Tunnel to judge which reflective signs caught their eye the best.

It's even being pitched to Hollywood as a movie location, Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFabo said.

"There's supposed to be a car crash in a tunnel," he said. "That's all I know."

But for others, the piece of four-lane road, with one end near the Breezewood interchange and the other at a turnpike pulloff 10 miles to the east, is a valuable artifact.

"That piece of highway is a marvelous historic moment in time," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the coalition of biking and hiking paths joined to form the Great Allegheny Passage, which will sweep 45 miles to the southwest of this abandoned stretch of turnpike.

"There isn't anything like it anywhere," said Schrotenboer, himself owner of Grouseland Tours, a southern Bedford County mountain bike touring operation. "It should draw hundreds of people a day.

"The route's pretty level," he said, "and it's an enjoyable ride for somebody who's not an advanced rider or even an intermediate rider."

How much fix-up the conservancy does will be dictated by considerations such as how well money hunters troll government agencies and private foundations for cash.

Diehl refuses to guess at a completion date. Schrotenboer forecasts that it could be as soon as next summer.

A 4-year-old Turnpike Commission report calls the abandoned four-lane "still very usable" and boasts that vehicles "can hit 60 mph in selected lanes." But from Breezewood to where the highway spills into neighboring Fulton County, enough roadway is potholed and scraped away that, for now, it's the stuff of mountain bikes, not more genteel road bikes.

The two tunnels, meanwhile, bear witness to a great American truth -- that there is nowhere so remote or so forgotten that a graffiti artist with a spray paint can didn't get there ahead of you.

Thieves long ago made off with the tunnels' names, the signature steel lettering that the Turnpike Commission uses as a headline over the entrances.

Over three decades, miscreants descended on the tunnels, pillaged upstairs guard offices and smashed the last of the windows.

Still, Diehl pronounces the two portals themselves sound.

Both take on so little water that a car passing through raises a cloud of dust.

The stretch of highway is almost the very route that planners chose 120 years ago when William Vanderbilt, head of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, dreamed up the South Pennsylvania Railroad to counterattack the Pennsylvania Railroad, which he believed was invading his territory.

The railroad was only partly finished when Vanderbilt's principle banker signed the Southern Penn's death warrant by judging the idea wrongheaded. Among jobs left undone were completion of the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels.

But in 1940, automobiles covered the route, including through the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels, when the pathway was resurrected in the 160-mile, Irwin-to-Carlisle Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The turnpike was a simpler place then.

"Oral history says that, in the beginning, there were so few cars on the turnpike ... that people stopped in the medians and had picnics," said Harrisburg writer Dan Cupper, author of a retrospective book the Turnpike Commission produced when it turned 50 in 1990.

The abandoned stretch shows what the turnpike would have looked like in 1940, when it opened, said Cupper, who occasionally gathers there with other transportation buffs to soak up ambiance.

But by 1968, the four lanes of traffic were running into bottlenecks at the tunnels, which were both only two lanes -- one in each direction.

The Turnpike Commission could have bored a second tunnel at both locations. It decided instead to build a bypass, reaching 13.5 miles east from Breezewood.

Last year, 7.4 million vehicles zipped by on the newer turnpike link, three miles from the old stretch at one spot, roaring 1,200 feet above Sideling Hill Tunnel in another. The 11 abandoned miles, though, were mostly out of sight and largely out of mind.

The curious, who share photos, directions and impressions of the road on the Internet, occasionally find their way in to rubberneck a little.

"It just fascinates some people," said Beverly Hinish, longtime neighbor to the old highway. "It's nothing to come home and find cars with out-of-state license plates parked out front."

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