Trail on the turnpike

By Ryan Brown

USTONTOWN – As a borrowed van bumped along side roads in Fulton County approaching the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, Murray Schrotenboer flipped through gory still photos from the movie “Zombie Exs,” filmed on the long-decaying 13-mile highway.

The film is about a man whose ex-girlfriends return from the dead, Schrotenboer explained. It’s far from the only horror movie to be shot there.

“This is a place that never existed,” he said. “This is post-apocalyptic America.”

The Friday afternoon tour – featuring Schrotenboer, who oversees the site for the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy; Bedford County Planning Director Donald Schwartz; seven other government representatives and a reporter – was the first in the latest push to turn the abandoned turnpike into a fully functional cycling and walking trail.

Schwartz, Schrotenboer and their allies have worked for years to secure support for the project. Their renewed efforts could pay off if government agencies can provide the money they need: millions of dollars, even by years-old estimates.

Part One of their plan is to show county, state and federal officials just how unique and bizarre the overgrown road really is.

“Finally it looks as if this can actually be a trail … the only superhighway-to-bicycle trail in America,” Schrotenboer told his guests beyond a locked entrance gate, deep inside a hard-to-reach forest.

The abandoned turnpike meanders for 13 miles from rural Fulton County to Breezewood. Built in the late 1930s as part of the first cross-state superhighway, the stretch featured two tunnels: one under Rays Hill for roughly two-thirds of a mile, the other under Sideling Hill for 1.3 miles.

By the 1960s, turnpike traffic was at 30 times its capacity, Schrotenboer explained. Lanes were expanded and tunnels doubled up, but in Bedford and Fulton counties, engineers simply built a bypass that would render the 13 miles useless.

It closed in 1968. For the 45 years since, the road has seen an abundance of uses: state police pistol range, rumble strip test site, horror movie set and countless others.

But mostly it sits, while grass grows through cracked pavement, trees overtake the median and vandals spray-paint offensive slogans on the tunnel walls.

Narrating as Schwartz drove, Schrotenboer explained how the right funding could turn a decayed service-station parking lot into an entryway for hikers and bikers from across the country.

That parking lot, once situated next to a Howard Johnson’s, gives way to a long, tree-lined road before the eastern entrance to the Sideling Hill Tunnel rises into view from Buchanan State Forest.

The tunnel is pitch black – light from each end disappears midway through – but daring cyclists already traverse it, some without flashlights, Schrotenboer said.

Chunks of fallen concrete lay scattered across the road surface.

On hot summer days, the humidity leaves channels of water on the ceiling; fog sometimes billows from the tunnel entrances.

Planners hope to one day reverse the concrete problems and install enough lighting to replicate moonlight, Schwartz said, while maintaining the tunnel’s post-apocalyptic look.

The tunnels’ upper control centers, once occupied 24 hours a day by turnpike workers overseeing power and air conditioning, are now home only to bats – and even then, only in cooler months. An enormous motor rusts under a tree canopy, water trickling from the ceiling and graffiti covering the surrounding walls.

“Everybody sees this as an open canvas,” Schrotenboer said as he pointed out a newly painted tag.

As the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy “Pike 2 Bike” chairman, he’s visited the site an estimated 700 times. He regularly sees hikers, cyclists and the occasional nervous teenager sporting a backpack and the smell of paint, he said.

The control center likely wouldn’t remain open in their envisioned trail. Tour groups and officials could step inside, but the public would be forbidden in a move to precent liability, Schwartz and Schrotenboer said.

There are few signs of human life beyond that point: deer, coyotes and bears are the only notable residents, they said.

Past more highway and the smaller, but better preserved, Rays Hill Tunnel is the Bedford County entrance to the abandoned turnpike. It sits off Route 30, closed to cars but open for bikes and foot traffic. Organizers could eventually open the trail to horses, as well, Schwartz said.

Turning the abandoned turnpike into a public trail would require tremendous support, he explained: While the Bedford County terminus is situated just a few hundred yards from Breezewood and its constant tourist traffic, the Fulton County side ends far from any town or business center.

Planners would have to prove the project’s economic contribution to officials from Fulton County, which would likely share ownership of any future trail with Bedford County. The conservancy, caretakers of the abandoned highway since 2001, will almost certainly have to give up control before the project is done.

Three Fulton County government officers joined the Friday tour. Like everyone on the tour, they seemed impressed by the scale and strangeness of the abandoned road.

But a sweeping economic study – set for completion in the coming year, with funding already secured – could solidify broader support. Schwartz and local business owners, including Breezewood hotelier James Bittner, insist that a fully refurbished trail would bring thousands of tourists to the region.

A campground could be built on the otherwise empty Fulton County end, Schwartz said. Free parking lots could solicit donations for upkeep, planners have mentioned.

Driving west toward the exit Friday as storm clouds rapidly approached, Schrotenboer and Schwartz tossed trail ideas back and forth.

They differed on minor points, like how much plant life should be trimmed away, but seemed to agree that the years-old plan is finally making progress.

“I’ve been pushing this rock for 12, 15 years,” Schrotenboer said. “And now it looks like we’re getting to the top.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.