Bike Pennsylvania's Ghost Road

There's an abandoned superhighway in Pennsylvania, nestled in a forest between Bedford and Fulton counties, where cyclists find an eerie freedom.
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Photo Credit: Greg Sofranko

It makes no sense when you see it for the first time, what is the inexplicable stretch of highway doing here? As you shove off to ride this mysterious route, the pavement quickly begins to erode, the surrounding foliage creeping closer to the asphalt. Roots and freeze/thaw cycles have upended the road's surface, and you are curiously aware that here, in the woods, is a nine-mile-long superhighway. Why?

Those nine miles span several volumes of history. The stretch began as part of a Native American footpath through the Alleghenies; it now functions as a rogue bike path. In the 1800s, William Vanderbilt recognized this route as a promising interstate. He began developing the land for a railroad bed. Vanderbilt's Folly, as the project came to be known, carved the South Pennsylvania Railroad through the Allegheny Mountains at a furious pace until everyone realized it made no financial sense to have two railroad lines so close together. Miles of forest had been graded and leveled. Tunnels had been blasted through hills. And just like that, the workers stopped their projects. Dropped their tools where they were, returning to civilization when the money dried up.

The newly formed Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made an international splash. Models of America's Dream Highway turned up at the World's Fair. Life Magazine previewed this "tunnel highway" where there were no speed limits and motorists could zip through the mountains. When the Turnpike opened after just three years of furious labor, cars lined up for days to be among the first to ride the road.

And it was as glamorous as promised...so glamorous that visitors out-drove its capacity by many millions of cars. The nine-mile stretch between Bedford and Fulton counties became a nightmare. The tunnels, once so fascinating, caused bottlenecks and traffic jams for hours when four zippy lanes merged into two. After 28 years, the Turnpike bypassed those miles, knocked out the bridge connecting them to civilization, and a silent ghost road emerged.

Slowly, the road not taken has transformed into a haven for cyclists looking for the ride of a lifetime. This ride through history teaches of Pennsylvania's connection to Manifest Destiny, to our nation's dedication to moving onward and upward. As you navigate mankind's fleeting presence in those woods, the road teaches lessons in both engineering ingenuity and nature's powerful ability to reclaim her territory when we've gone.

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