All Roads Lead to Breezewood – The Town of Motels, Food, and Fuel! [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] Jun03

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All Roads Lead to Breezewood – The Town of Motels, Food, and Fuel! [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

Who wants a hamburger, or needs a bathroom, or how about just to top off the gas tank?  Well, flip your signal on and head to Breezewood – because all roads will eventually take you there!

Breezewood — it’s one of the few spots in the United States where you will encounter a traffic light on a major interstate.  It’s kind of a Las Vegas of the East, offering dozens of restaurants, motels, and fuel for weary travelers.  Once, it was simply a small gas station at a turnpike off ramp… now, it’s a spectacle on the highway.

Breezewood is located in western Pennsylvania smack at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-70, and US 30 (The Lincoln Highway.)  The interchange is a major stop for those traveling on I-70, which departs the Turnpike at this exit.  According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3.4 million vehicles used the interchange in 2004.  Heading eastbound on I-70, you’re forced off the turnpike, and to stop at a red light if you want to continue on to Washington DC.

The Breezewood area has always been a major stop in the travel world since the earliest days of the United States.  The Native Americans had established a busy trail here.  Before the Revolutionary War, Conestoga wagons heading west would frequent the trail.  British troops led by General John Forbes continued upgrades that allowed troops to travel from Pittsburgh through the mountains to Chambersburg.  After the war, the road would become privately tolled and was known as the Chambersburg-Bedford Turnpike.

In the late 19th Century, the New York Central Railroad began construction on their South Pennsylvania Railroad line that would run right through the area.  The company had hoped to compete with the colossal Pennsylvania Railroad that had long been established, but the funding ran out and most of the line, except for miles or grading and several tunnels was never finished.

In 1815, the first hotel opened in the area, The Maple Lawn Inn.  The building still stands today and is located less than a mile west of the town.  It is located directly along route 30 and has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.  The hotel has long been closed.

Even through all this history, Breezewood would not grow up until the invention of the automobile.

On July 1, 1913, The Lincoln Highway came rolling into town.  The road, which still bears the number US 30, was originally one of the first highways to cross the United States.  A motorist could start at the beginning in Times Square, New York and ride all the way to San Francisco, California.  The highway is nicknamed “The Main Street Across America.”

A few years after the highway (which was then only a sparsely paved two lane road), future President Dwight Eisenhower rode on through as part of a military convoy and even wrote about it in a book, “At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends.

Greyhound Bus Lines officially opened a Post House there in 1935 and the town continued to grow.  By now, it was already becoming a major stopping point for travelers and people began to call it Breezewood.  By 1937, the first garage popped up along the highway bearing the name.

In the late 30s, construction began on The Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The turnpike was to be “America’s First Superhighway.”  It would be a high speed, express route from one end of the state to the other.  It would use much of the abandoned South Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels and grading.  The highway’s exit 6 would make a stop, right at the edge of town.

Seeing the potential the highway would bring, construction began on the Gateway Motel and Restaurant.  It was one of the first highway rest stops and opened just before the turnpike and is still in operation today.

The turnpike officially opened for business on October 1, 1940 and at that time when Breezewood was little more than a dot on a map.  But, the volume of traffic that began to use the Turnpike changed that.  At nearly every interchange on the system, restaurants, gas stations, and hotels sprang up.  Breeezewood, being centrally located on the original section, made an ideal place to stop and take a quick rest.

President Eisenhower, still impressed by his cross country military travels and seeing the  vast autobahn highway system in Germany, signed the Interstate Highway System into law for the United States and routed I-70 right through town.

Construction on I-70 began in the mid-60s.  Part of the interstates routing, put it on the turnpike for 86 miles in Pennsylvania.  As part of the plan, the turnpike itself was upgraded, the tunnels were twinned (two tubes to eliminate the two lane tunnels), and a bypass was constructed on a more rugged section just east of Breezewood (known as the Sideling Hill Bypass.)

Original plans called for a direct interchange from the turnpike to the new section of I-70 that would depart at Breezewood and head east to Washington DC.  The merchants that had opened in town rallied against such a bypass.  It would surely spell the end to their businesses.  Due to a dispute with the Federal Highway Administration and the Pennsylvania Turnpike management; the high costs of connecting the two roads with an interchange was unacceptable and the plan was dropped.

The traffic light on I-70 in Breezewood is one of the extremely few instances of a signal permitted on an US interstate.

When the turnpike opened their new Sideling Hill Bypass, the original Breezewood interchange was closed and new ramps and toll booths built a mile south of town.  Part of the original road that was abandoned was turned into access ramps for I-70, that brought it and the departing turnpike traffic to a traffic light, right in front of the Gateway Motel and Restaurant.  Instantly, millions of cars were dumped into the heart of town.

The rest of the abandoned section was recently turned into a hiking and biking trail that takes riders through two abandoned tunnels.  The recent movie, The Road starring Vego Mortensen was also shot here using the abandoned Sideling Hill Tunnel.  This section of road was also used to test unleaded gasoline and rumble strips.

As traffic volume continued into the 70s and 80s, so did the number of service centers in town.  Gateway quickly found itself being surrounded by other plazas, basically creating a mile-long strip of service amenities of all types that still exists today.

There is one important fact to note about Breezewood… it has no residents.  Not one.  No mayor, no police, nothing.  It does have a post office and zip code, 15533, but that is for the businesses located there.  The town is not officially incorporated and is listed as part of Bedford County.

In 1990, a New York Times article noted that Breezewood has “no less than 10 motels, 14 fast-food restaurants and 7 fuel and service stations, including two sprawling truck stops.”

For years, I would travel the Turnpike passing Breezewood at least twice a week.  I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve stopped there for food and fuel.  There are so many choices and the list continues to change.  On the Turnpike approaching it, motorists are bombarded with dozens of billboards advertising all kinds of services.  Some of the more novel billboards would feature a giant coffee cup, a giant mock Sheetz store canopy, and even a business selling llamas just outside of town.

For decades, a vintage neon billboard simply proclaimed, Breezewood: Town of Motels, Food, and Fuel – next exit.

My favorite part of driving through the area is coming down the Sideling Hill mountain at night and seeing the town as a neon oasis in the darkness.  The signs are simply stunning.  It certainly is like a mini-Las Vegas.  You can see the glow well over the horizon, especially on a foggy night.  It also makes for a great stop, especially in the bad mountain weather.

A 2009 Business Week article has one of my favorite quotes about the town, “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap…the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”

It’s also gratifying to see that the recession has only had a small impact on the town.  As gas prices climb and the amount of travelers drops off, only a couple of the motels and restaurants have closed.  For a more vintage ride, keep driving west on US 30 outside of town and check out the dozen or so old fashioned roadside motels that are still open.

Every once in a while, the Turnpike comes up with a plan to again bypass the town with a direct link to I-70.  Each time the business owners successfully shoot it down.

When I first got my license, it was always a thrill to take a drive there.  It was far enough from home to get away for a few hours, but not too far that you couldn’t drive back.

I’ve since moved away from the area, but it’s still always a pleasure to stop there on my drive home.  One of those 64-ounce fountain drinks always powers me up for the rest of my drive.  So, kudos to you Breezewood for beating the odds and becoming a true roadside attraction and a true interstate oddity!

As long as they keep that red light there – you will always be a roadside attraction!

THE 411

What: Breezewood, PA

Where: located at the intersection of The Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-70, and US 30 in West-Central Pennsylvania. Turnpike Exit number: 161

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: If you are passing by and have never been there – take a second and stop.  It doesn’t cost any more on your turnpike toll if you do.  If you’re a veteran driver in the area, stop and take a second look at what’s new.

The town is a great place to stop for a second to refuel.  It’s also a nice place to let the kids stretch their legs or the dog do its duty.  While gas may be high, there are lots of food and even a couple of giant souvenir shops to choose from as well.

A few years ago, Pennsylvania recently legalized casino gambling… wouldn’t this make a great place to open one?  You’ve got the hotels, you’ve got the weary travelers, and you’ve got the neon… I’m just saying!