Gateway Travel Plaza: keeping Breezewood, PA (America’s gas station town) from running on empty.

Breezewood. It sounds like it could be the name of a stereotypical suburb to a major Midwest city (Chicago definitely comes to mind); it also sounds sufficiently generic that one might expect a dozen towns scattered across the country with the name.  Negative on both counts.  There’s only one Breezewood, and it’s not a suburb in the least.  While most people who have travelled the Pennsylvania Turnpike are well familiar with the place, it’s a moderate obscurity for the rest of the country.

What’s Breezewood?  It’s a drab stretch of highway, no more than a half-mile long, nestled in otherwise beautiful mountains of central Pennsylvania, about 120 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  Though a handful of homes, a post office, and a church all dot a quarter-mile rural main street, giving a population of around 100 at most, for all intents and purposes Breezewood is nearly uninhabited.  But it’s completely littered with motorist-oriented services: restaurants, gas, gift shops, basic automotive needs, hotels.  It’s not easy to get a great image of the concatenation of businesses in a single camera frame shot, so I have to give credit to Edward Burtynsky, a far more accomplished photographer than I am, for beautifully capturing its clutter of curb cuts and signs.

[NOTE: I seriously undermined my own article in this case for the lack of good exterior photos of Breezewood.  To be perfectly frank, I have none.  Sometimes the inspiration for a great article comes only after I have departed a place, and that’s precisely what happened this time around.  If I revisit Breezewood any time soon, I’ll update this blog post with better original photos.]

Breezewood didn’t emerge until the Pennsylvania Turnpike authorities designated it Exit 6, but it really only exploded in population in the early 1960s, when the portion of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System that extended Interstate 70 began construction, linking Pittsburgh and this portion of the Turnpike to rural Western Maryland and ultimately to Baltimore.  But I-70 and the Turnpike (I-76) don’t quite connect, due to a federal law in the 1950s that restricted the construction of a highway segment that directly channels motorists from a limited access toll road to a limited access free road.  Based on that law (since repealed) a segment of standard road (with intersections and stoplights) must link the two highways, and, at this particular site in south-central Pennsylvania, filling the asphalt lacuna is the jumble of rest area shops that constitute Breezewood.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century, Breezewood thrived thanks to its fortuitous location, where it “dumped” motorists leaving I-70 before converging onto I-76 (or vice versa).  But these days, Breezewood isn’t looking so pretty.  This Google Street View from last September shows the corridor pockmarked with vacancies: how could “Gas Vegas” not even support more than a couple gas stations?  A fairly recent article from GribbleNation speculates that the R&R are typologies that allowed Breezewood to flourish in the mid 20th century are no longer as popular among the motoring public: for example, the sit-down restaurants like Howard Johnson’s and Perkins that proliferated in the era of the dual oil crises (1970s) had fallen out of favor significantly by the 1990s, when a more diverse array of fast food options than simply McDonald’s began to dethrone the leisurely meal.  But today, even many of those options have departed Breezewood: a Perkins couldn’t make it despite being attached to a still-operative Flying J Truck Stop.  And what’s the future of the place when not even a Taco Bell or Wendy’s can survive?

The answer may be here:

Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood, PA

It’s the Gateway Travel Plaza, an amalgamation of gas, food, and trucker/motorist services all under one roof.  It’s the first stop on the right as one unloads from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling westward on the US-30 (Lincoln Highway)/I-70 corridor that constitutes the bulk of Breezewood’s “strip”, before picking up the limited access version of I-70 that heads in a south-southeasterly direction toward Hancock and Hagerstown, Maryland.  This Gateway Plaza of a magnet’s repellent force to stymie any activity from the next five parcels on its same side of the street: following it are a recently demolished KFC (empty for years), a vacated Exxon (relocated to the Gateway Travel Plaza), a Taco Bell that departed some time in 2018-19, a larger structure resembling an IHOP that seems to have last been a sports bar in 2014, and, finally, a long mothballed structure that previously housed a Sheetz gas station in 2009 (which relocated to a shiny new facility a block further west).

It’s unreasonable to assert that Gateway Travel Plaza was responsible for this trail of blight; it began as the Gateway Inn in 1941, as one of the first places of respite along this stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  But Gateway certainly seems to be trouncing the competition.  Taking a look inside, even amidst coronavirus restrictions, it’s clearly more in sync with motorist demand than many of the other structures that line Breezewood’s strip.

The Quick Mart and Travel Stop is larger than the majority of gas station convenience stores.

And while Pennsylvania’s strict coronavirus regulations prohibited indoor dining in early January, the five fast food restaurants are all still operational, albeit some with limited hours for the time being.

But what distinguishes Gateway Travel Plaza is the content tucked away from the primary foyer—the ancillary services one doesn’t expect to see, and those which most visitors never even know about.

One can assume the laundromat and showers primarily serve truckers, and my presumption is that this structure, sanitized to appeal to motorists from all strata, is a bit more savory than many facilities that function exclusively as truck stops.  The second floor is an even bigger surprise.

Gateway Travel Plaza interior
Gateway Travel Plaza upper floor

Yes, there most certainly is a Radio Shack, which, as of November 2020, is part of the amalgam of acquisitions from Retail E-commerce Ventures, along with such other defunct retailers as Pier 1 Imports (now Pier1), Dress Barn, Linens ’n Things, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and the Franklin Mint.  Most Radio Shack locations are have partnered with HobbyTown USA or other vendors that serve as authorized “RadioShack” dealers, as is the case at Gateway Travel Plaza.  I was even more surprised by some of the other second floor findings.

I believe the (currently closed) TV Lounge and training room host small conferences as needed.  Probably not a bad location for people in the logistics industry.

The chaplain was a huge surprise, coming from a private, family run company that had upgraded at this site over the years.  During better times, the training room across from the TV lounge hosts chapel services.

The arcade and billiards appear to be another casualty of COVID; filled with seemingly unopened boxes, this room is unlikely to return to normal anytime soon.

Returning to the main level, one encounters some oddities that reflect the seemingly cavalier attitude toward the enforcement of and adherence to COVID restrictions.  

The restrooms seem to offer fully functional hand dryers.  Perhaps this is more of a state-by-state restriction, but I’ve noted that other institutions have determined that the aerosolization of contaminant particles through hand dryers is a high risk situation for the spread of the virus.  Paper towels are better.  Apparently that’s not such a big deal in Breezewood, or at least to the Gateway Travel Plaza.  And then there’s this:

Although the second-floor arcade is closed by order of the Pennsylvania Governor for COVID, the first-floor one is open.  (I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but something makes me think there’s more behind this contradiction than meets the eye.)

In Breezewood’s defense, not all visual indicators suggest its creeping obsolescence.   The area has at least one middle market hotel (Holiday Inn), a long-standing Starbucks, surviving locations of a few struggling chains (Pizza Hut, Bob Evans), and a Tesla Supercharger.  But the evidence is clear: the rest of Breezewood is flailing to maintain relevance while the one operation at the front of the line cleans house.  It doesn’t help that the demand for the services Breezewood offers has most likely declined, or that they are replicated at other roadside rest stops at relatively short distances.  The aforementioned GribbleNation article noted that Breezewood lost a lot of its mojo after the 1992 completion of I-68 in western Maryland, which largely follows the path of the Old National Road, linking Hancock, Maryland to Morgantown, West Virginia, thereby providing an alternative travel path that eased some of the demand for the I-70/76 corridor, which it parallels.  With 10% fewer vehicles (and visitors) along the Turnpike, the marginal businesses in Breezewood couldn’t sustain themselves.  Even the natural increase in vehicular traffic that comes through population growth and a steady rise in the demand for logistics hasn’t proven strong enough.

But the influence of a smartly run business cannot be denied.  Gateway Travel Plaza has effectively tried to mimic the publicly supported service plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike; even the external appearance of Gateway Travel Plaza features that same pitched roof with dormer windows common to the plazas at the turnpike.  With the exception of lodgings, it offers virtually everything a traveler would need and maximizes the convenience; why make three stops when everything could be available under one roof?  The remaining 2,000 feet of Breezewood’s strip must maneuver far more adroitly to accommodate shifting tastes.  The only thing Gateway Travel Plaza seems to be lacking at this point is a dog park.

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16 thoughts on “Gateway Travel Plaza: keeping Breezewood, PA (America’s gas station town) from running on empty.

  1. Dennis Paras

    I’ve never stopped at this particular station. I might check it out on my next trip west for fun. Gasoline tends to be more significantly more expensive in PA than MD or OH, which may affect the number of people stopping in Breezewood.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Great points! It makes me wonder if the gas price differential between Pennsylvania and neighboring states really grew in the late 1990s, about the same time Breezewood began to decline. Maybe a big tax hike? When I used to live in eastern Pennsylvania, I would routinely time things so that I was in New Jersey whenever I needed to get good cheap gas… Except that New Jersey increased its gas price to almost the same as Pennsylvania in about 2016, and it was no longer worth it. But you make an excellent point: although Breezewood isn’t super close to the Maryland border, it’s close enough that cars, with increasingly large gas tanks, can easily make the extra 70 miles to a stop near Hancock.

      Reply
    2. Dennis Paras

      I forgot when PA last raised their gas tax. Also, I’ve been using I-68 more going west. I had a little sticker shock when I paid tolls on the PA turnpike this past summer. I wonder if others are doing the same.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Definitely. As I noted in the article (citing someone else), the 1992 completion of I-68 took a serious cut into the Turnpike’s traffic from Breezewood to its terminus near New Stanton, PA. While I-68 is a bit longer as the crow flies, it’s often still a shorter trip (according to GPS). And not only is it less congested but it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of Appalachia. Plus it ends in the great little city of Morgantown, WV.

        It’s too bad that the presence of I-68 has not seemed to do anything to lift the economic fortunes of Cumberland, MD though.

        Reply
  2. Sarah Pierson Myers

    I am not sure we have been there in years, but depending on how we would drive from Maryland to Indiana, we would stop here. Wow, what memories from 20 years ago! This article just shows how much time marches on.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, it has marched on indeed! Good to hear your memories, Sarah. My guess is if you were to visit Breezewood again sometime soon, it wouldn’t look so pretty. My hope is to get up there before too long again, and to fill this blog post with some more vivid photos to replace some of the verbiage. Stay tuned…

      Reply
  3. Alex Pline

    I too enjoyed it. I stopped there all the time in my commuting between Cleveland and Annapolis, and we celebrated when we got married and drove through on the way back to Cleveland the day after. In the days before GPS, I always got so turned around trying to understand how the ramp on to the turnpike worked. Always felt like going round in circles.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Alex, it’s definitely one of the least intuitive interchanges on the planet. If you’re headed eastward on the Turnpike and want to veer toward Baltimore, you have to turn first northeast, then due north, then due west, all in order to go south-southeast. So you’re absolutely going in circles. But that confusion (before GPS, and before modern superior signage) helped trap unwitting motorists who otherwise might not encounter any real roadside amenities without deliberate effort. Might as well fill up the car and grab a hoagie before continuing on the road. (Do they call them hoagies in that part of PA?)

      Reply
  4. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Breezewood has been a curiosity to road geeks for decades, always wondering when it’s finally going to be fixed. The convoluted routing remind me a bit of the I-65 and I-90 Indiana Toll Road interchange in Gary. If you’re on I-90 you just sail through, but if you’re going to or from I-65 you need to do a full 360 degree loop just to keep going the same direction. Toll booths spawn some really strange movements.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That’s a good analogy, Jeffrey. I know the interchange you’re speaking of in The Region pretty well because I used to make that drive regularly. If I recall correctly, about 10 years ago (probably much more) they improved it considerably, in terms of functionality and boosting the overall LOS . But they didn’t make it intuitive, so it’s still pretty goofy.

      Here’s my guess after learning more about Breezewood: Indiana probably had an old archaic law (much like Pennsylvania did) restricting the exact method of transitioning between a non-toll road and a toll road, requiring at least some signal activated portion. Didn’t the early 2000s I-65/90 interchange have a stop light or two? INDOT and the FHWA partnered to improve the interchange, but thanks to Indiana government’s customary extreme fiscal austerity, they designed several lower cost “tendrils” to link the roads rather than a complete re-routing. Indiana is historically one of (if now the) most tight-fisted of states; it does not take considerably large federal buyouts and nearly always takes the simplest and cheapest path to design a solution or improvement. There’s much to cavil about this approach, but Indiana doesn’t typically maintain a AAA bond rating for no reason.

      Thanks to your prompt, I took a look at the design of this interchange. It looks like really badly executed macramé.

      Reply
      1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

        “Didn’t the early 2000s I-65/90 interchange have a stop light or two?” Yeah if you were going south, after navigating the toll booths you’d come to a very lonely stop light where you would turn left to onto I-65 south. You could also turn right on the last 1/4 mile of I-65 north to get to US-20, but there’s a full interchange for that just to the east so the new flyovers don’t have that movement. It looks like there were three or four different stages of this interchange, from a simple exit to 15th Avenue and US-20 in the 1950s, to a connection with I-65 in the 1960s, to the expanded toll plaza plus a direct connection from I-65 to US-20 in the 1980s or 1990s, and finally the mess of tendrils from 2003. https://www.historicaerials.com/location/41.59227327725194/-87.30025679984458/1959/15

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for sharing that 1959 aerial. Looks like it was somewhat counterintuitive even back then, and, in the interest of saving money (no doubt–this is Indiana we’re talking about), they merely layered on more complex new flyovers rather than eliminating them. As a result, this interchange is closer to a “spaghetti junction” than anything I can think of in metro Indianapolis.

          Reply
  5. Diana Leigh

    If Gateway Travel is the go-to stop for travelers in that area, why do the photos show nearly empty shops and areas? The TV Room and Exercise Room make sense with restrictions, but food booths?

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Pennsylvania banned indoor dining from about Dec. 20 to Jan. 3. So if that’s when Eric was passing through, no one would have been allowed to eat in.

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      As Chris B said, they were still completely restricting indoor dining. Carryout only. Even with the bleak appearance, however, the Gateway Travel Plaza still looked better than most of the rest of Breezewood, which has lots of vacant buildings.

      Reply

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