Ray’s Hill Tunnel and its abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. — I had driven through the night, fueled by coffee and restored by an hour-long nap at a “unique area” in New York.

I had detoured us to a long, beautiful concrete rail bridge — “but not if it’s, like, 20 minutes out of the way,” I promised before leading us astray us for more than half an hour. My god it was lovely, though.

Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.
Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.

And so it wasn’t dawn when we finally parked at the mouth of the abandoned turnpike, as I had hoped. It was after four in the afternoon.

Also, it had just started to rain.

There are so many tunnels in Pennsylvania. They pierce coal-filled mountains and have romantic names like Friendship and Hickory, Allegheny and Big Savage, Shoofly, and this — Ray’s Hill. The rail tunnel was completed in 1885, and converted to highway by 1940. But it’s narrow and long and dark, and with two-way traffic, cars had to slow so much some of the first of America’s bottlenecks happened here.

We started along the pockmarked, overgrown roadway with the hoods of our raincoats pulled up and our hands in our pockets. It was unseasonably chilly and the landscape was shades of brown and gray with green pressing its nose against the door trying to be noticed.

This is no graffiti highway like in Centralia, though a few bored souls have made an attempt along the road. It was vacant but for a couple of give-no-shits brown rabbits.

The rumble strips were full of clear rainwater and the paint that edged the highway was slick with damp. We pressed on through the tunnel was a vague promise — we trusted it was there, but the road kept curving and we weren’t sure how far we’d gone, nor how far we had to go.

Pennsylvania traffic jams became such an issue the state commissioned $100 million to study and fix the problem. Other tunnels in the area were twinned, including the several we would drive through on our journey to Pittsburgh: Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora. But Ray’s Tunnel and its mate Sideling several miles down the road didn’t make the cut.

A new turnpike went around them and they were abandoned at the end of the 1960s, then used for a time to train snowplow drivers and test road paint and safety reflectors.

We walked about three kilometres in the rain before we were finally rewarded with the hazy outline of Ray’s Hill Tunnel.

It is deep and dark and echoes more truly than the mountains at Roger’s Pass. The doors to the control rooms are nailed shut, but have been pried apart. One can look inside, or climb the side of the tunnel to gain entry from above; while we were there, tiptoeing through the darkness using our phones as flashlights, there were a couple of souls above us, shining their lights down to try to frighten us.

The rain stopped and the far end of the tunnel was a tempting bright spot the size of a fingernail. It’s an optical illusion, my research had suggested. It’s a long, dark walk to the other side. We went about halfway, sometimes whispering, sometimes yelling, before turning back, sidestepping open manholes with rusty ladders leading the gods only know where.

Nothing left but echoes.

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