From 1940 until the early 1980s, this tollbooth stood at the Irwin interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, America’s first superhighway. When the first section of the turnpike opened to traffic Oct. 1, 1940, the town of Irwin, some 30 miles east of Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County, served as its western terminus. Hundreds of curiosity seekers were on hand for the unveiling followed soon after by thousands of motorists who lined up at Irwin and the 10 other interchanges interspersed along the original 160-mile route. Motorists then were eager for a chance to experience the “dream highway” that connected Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and for good reason: it cut travel time between those two principal Pennsylvania cities in half.
Of simple design and construction and painted in “Turnpike blue and gold,” the first generation of tollbooths were just large enough to accommodate two toll officers: one at the back, to collect tolls, and the other up front, to distribute fare cards. Up to four toll booths managed traffic at the higher volume interchanges. More remotely located interchanges typically had just a single tollbooth.
Despite their utilitarian purpose, tollbooths quickly became associated with the experience of traveling the turnpike. Their hexagonal design underscored the streamlined travel that motorists experienced on the new, high-speed superhighway – which originally opened with no posted speed limit. During the highway’s early years, toll collectors served as the “human face” of the new tolled roadway, and as its ambassadors, dispensing information on everything from interchange locations to weather conditions.
Over time, the original tollbooths were redesigned and retrofitted to accommodate new technology, including automatic toll calculators developed by IBM. By the early 1980s, most had been decommissioned, after which they were dismantled and scrapped. A few were salvaged and transferred to museums. The Smithsonian Institution acquired the last operating original tollbooth, from the Blue Mountain interchange, in 1983.
In the late 1990s, The State Museum collected this disassembled tollbooth from the Irwin interchange. With the help of both private donors and public funding, a team of conservators and curators spent 18 months painstakingly researching, treating and reconstructing the booth. The result is now on public display as one of the feature artifacts in the museum’s new exhibition on the history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, located in the second floor’s Industry and Transportation Gallery.
This edition of Pennsylvania Treasures was written by Dr.Curtis Miner, Senior History Curator for The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.