Graffiti Highway in the Keystone State: the histories of two abandoned roads are as different as their spraypainted messages.

In urban America, it’s a common occurrence for an executive body to determine that a small segment of a public right-of-way should no longer function as a transportation conduit.  For whatever reason, that 300-or-so feet of roadway is obsolete.  Perhaps it’s because it no longer leads to anything; it was a dead-end that provided access to a small number of homes, but all those homes are abandoned and gone.  Perhaps it’s because of natural conditions such as sinkholes, wetlands, or other contributors to subsidence, rendering the road segment so hazardous that a detour is preferable to the massive cost of repairs.  Perhaps the segment spawns a traffic bottleneck at an intersection where the free flow of vehicles along the other converging roads is more important.  The possible scenarios are almost infinite.  In each of these cases, the municipality can engage the legal process of vacating the road, which essentially strips the public-use easement from this path, opening it to the market of real property.  If the land under the road is valuable enough, chances are a private entity will purchase it, demolish the pavement, and turn it into a better use: an extension of the yard of a neighboring property, a new home, a green space, a narrow but tall office building.  In other words, not a Graffiti Highway. If the shoe fits…

Most of these street vacations in urban America transpire with little fanfare.  Nobody hears about them, outside of residents of the city itself, and even then only if it’s in a high-profile downtown location.  They’re not usually longer than a block or two, traffic was historically on the light side, and there’s usually a preferable alternative path nearby so the vacation and elimination of the road segment doesn’t create new problems.  That’s the standard approach in cities.

Rural road vacations are often a different story altogether.  A segment is inevitably a lot longer; the low population density means the distance between two intersections is much greater.  Land prices a typically lower, so, despite the length of paved surface, the demand in the private market may not be all that high; in fact, the cost of demolishing the concrete/asphalt may surpass the value of what’s underneath it.  And, although there may not be another alternative nearby, the traffic is non-existent, so it doesn’t induce bottlenecks elsewhere.  Far too often, therefore, a vacated rural road is simply left abandoned, to deteriorate and crumble over time.  A lot like this:

Aspiring Graffiti Highway near Breezewood, PA (abandoned Turnpike)

We can see how the name Graffiti Highway might apply.

The fact is, the above photo is a lot more than your usual Farm Route 19.  It’s an old expanse of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of the country’s first federally designated stretches of limited-access highway, with the initial segment completed in 1940.  Its design helped inform the Eisenhower Administration’s National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, more than a decade later.  The segment of Turnpike in these photos, near the notorious “Gas Vegas” rest stop community of Breezewood (which I covered recently), captures the first half-mile stretch that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) abandoned way back in 1968, replacing it with an alternative route that sprawls eastward for about 12 miles, old road and new road criss-crossing on multiple occasions.  Here’s a portion of the two paths on Google Maps:

As the labels clearly indicate, the thin green line is the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and the the thicker of the two yellow lines is Interstate 76, the contemporary replacement.

The reasoning behind the replacement is simple: the Turnpike was a victim of its own success.  During the planning in the 1930s, much of the route claimed the right-of-way of the old South Pennsylvania Railroad, which had already blasted tunnels through many of the commonwealth’s most challenging mountain ranges.  But those tunnels, particularly at Rays Hill and Sideling Hill, only accommodated two lanes of traffic: one in each direction.  This created tremendous bottlenecks during peak vacation periods, prompting the PTC to initiate a study that would determine what combination of tunnel widening and bypassing was most appropriate to rectify the problem.  The final decision involved bypassing tunnels to the two aforementioned hills.  The result, completed in 1968, created thirteen miles of new Turnpike, a new Sideling Hill Travel Plaza, and a considerably smoother terrain upon which to travel.  The initiative decommissioned the thirteen miles in the above photo, abandoned a Cove Valley Travel Plaza, and reduced the total number of tunnels from six to four.  And the neglected stretch of pavement languished.

Aspiring Graffiti Highway near Breezewood, PA (abandoned Turnpike)
Aspiring Graffiti Highway in Western PA (abandoned Turnpike)

As one might expect, it has become a graffiti highway of sorts.

The thirteen miles of abandoned Turnpike exists today as a fascinating relic of how much the scale of private vehicle transportation has changed since the 1940s.  Simultaneous to this abandonment, the PTC upgraded most of the remaining length of the Turnpike on its existing right of way, gradually widening the entire expanse to at four lanes (or six lanes, in some more congested segments).

Yet the photos above depict a road with a median, which might have allowed two lanes in each direction some of the time, though there clearly wouldn’t have been much space for a shoulder, and the widths of the lanes likely do not meet today’s FHA standards.  During its infancy, this was the Turnpike.

For several years after the closure, the PTC continued to use this stretch of abandoned Turnpike for various motorist-related tests: snowplow efficacy, rumble strips, road guidance (reflectors, luminous paint), or crash testing.  But it still decayed.  Like an abandoned building, abandoned infrastructure attracts its share of curiosity seekers, who, in turn, often accelerate the decrepitude through carelessness during their exploration, or deliberate vandalism and plundering.  The Broken Windows Theory then, in turn, signals the abandonment more overtly, prompting additional explorers and vandals.  Or just curiosity seekers  A death spiral.  This unremarkable stretch of the fully active U.S. 30 just west of Breezewood serves as one of the most prominent “trailheads”:

Access to the abandoned Turnpike is just up the hill on the trail to the left of the photo.

Once atop the hill, the modest trail expands dramatically, to something far wider than the typical greenway.

Since it’s essentially unmaintained, the greatest source of intrigue are all the telltale indicators of the Broken Windows Theory: namely, the abundant graffiti, much of which is (as usual) a little spicy.

I particularly like the effort to build a start line to an unofficial race.

But with all this graffiti, it’s hard to imagine the finish line could work well unless there were people there to monitor it; a similar stripe would get lost amidst the other markings and the general weathering of the asphalt.  Truth be told, it’s far more intact than one might expect for a roadway that has languished for more than half a century…proof that roads need much of their maintenance not from the mere passage of time but from heavy vehicles exerting repeated pressure on a material that grows brittle with age.

At a certain point, though, something had to happen to this festering scab on the land.  By the 1990s, civic interests in western Pennsylvania realized that there’s a better use for this 13-mile slice through the woods and mountains.  So in 2001 PTC sold the roadway to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy, with the aim of preserving it to become a de facto rail-to-trail conversion.  (Or rail-to-turnpike-to-trail.)  In the meantime, runners and bicyclists use it at their own risk, and a local advocacy group, Pike2Bike, continues to pursue the appropriate strategy to improve its condition and accessibility, necessary for it to become a genuine recreational trail.  A 2018 update to the 2006 Master Plan helped build a Joint Authority between Bedford and Fulton counties establishing shared maintenance and ownership, so the progress continues to lurch along.  In the meantime, a sign at the trailhead, courtesy of Pike2Bike, informs explorers, fitness buffs, and vandals of the terms and conditions.

And yes, the sign carries this spraypainted logo: a sort of infinity symbol with a boomerang protruding from it. It popped up everywhere along the trail—either this same style, or sometimes the infinity sign looked more like two very choppy waves and a lighthouse emerging from it.  Must be some sort of grassroots branding effort.

But this effort at a Graffiti Highway is fairly tame.  Such artistic flourishes are much more prevalent on the opposite side of the Keystone State, at another stretch of abandoned roadway.

Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA

This time it’s not the Turnpike; it’s PA-61, a state highway that was never limited access.  And still isn’t.  This segment of State Route 61 passes through the largely extinct coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania.  In 1950, Centralia boasted all the amenities one would expect of a borough of 2,500, but a careless attempt to clean the local landfill around 1962 pushed an unintentionally induced fire into the massive tangle of anthracite coal mine tunnels, already largely decommissioned and abandoned at that time.  Nothing could extinguish it.

I could build an extensive travelogue of Centralia, PA, but I don’t know if I can do it justice.  Much like the forcibly evacuated villages of Picher, Oklahoma and Westclay, Nebraska (both of which I’ve also visited) plenty of other documentarians have explored Centralia with a sensitivity which I’m not sure I can improve upon.  Suffice it to say, the mine fires under Centralia continue to burn; by the 1980s the community was aware that they could eventually prove dangerous enough to collapse the entire town, while the surface carbon monoxide levels exacerbated the hazard.  Most members of the community took state/federal buyouts; about a dozen inhabitants remain today, though they have agreed that their estates will get subsumed by the Commonwealth via eminent domain after they die.

The Centralia mine fires may burn forever.  It’s impossible to gauge how deeply the fires stretch, but attempts to extinguish it would prove too expensive and dangerous to justify.  Sealing the fire, evacuating (or evicting) the population, and condemning the land was the only viable option.  And a mile-long segment of State Route 61 just south of Centralia revealed similar vulnerabilities, with visible smoke escaping from the fissures.  The aerial below shows how PennDOT rerouted this segment in 1993, leaving the abandoned segment to explorers…and suffering a fate akin to the Abandoned Turnpike in the state’s east.

Which, of course, means graffiti.

Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA

Lots and lots of it.  The accumulation of colorful painted messages has earned the Centralia segment of State Route 61 the nickname “Graffiti Highway”.  That’s what everyone calls it; it’s the name the map uses.  It’s so lacquered in spray paint that it’s almost pretty, and the bright colors makes it look from a distance like chalk. 

Graffiti from Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA
Graffiti Highway at abandoned SR 61 in Centralia, PA

What’s striking is how much more intense the graffiti is here than on the Abandoned Turnpike (at least the segment near Breezewood that I saw), despite the fact that the Turnpike has been abandoned for 25 years longer than PA-61.  I couldn’t claim the abandoned Turnpike would ever deserve the Graffiti Highway sobriquet, certainly not compared to what they’ve got out there in Centralia.  Why would this be?  Is the area around PA-61 more densely populated than the abandoned Turnpike?  Maybe.  Slightly.  Pottsville, PA to the south of Centralia is certainly a lot larger than Breezewood.  But Breezewood is a much busier stretch of highway, with far more passers-by in a given day.   At less than a mile in length, the Graffiti Highway segment near Centralia is much smaller; therefore, it concentrates people more easily.  And the story of the forced evacuation of Centralia has earned a mystique that is more harrowing and sexier than simply rerouting a highway because of traffic bottlenecks.  It might help that the story of Centralia inspired the successful 2006 horror film Silent Hill, though filmed elsewhere.  (On a good day on Graffiti Highway, one can still see the smoke from the mine fires.  My photos from the summer of 2016 didn’t capture this.  Thankfully.)

Despite the fact that the abandoned Turnpike out west intends (eventually) to serve as a recreation trail, it is the restricted, condemned, mildly dangerous State Route 61 out east that gets the lion’s share of visitors, if the accumulation of graffiti is any evidence.  Apparently, in the time since I snapped these photos, accessibility to Graffiti Highway has declined considerably: in 2018, PennDOT finally vacated the .75-mile right-of-way for the old State Route 61, ceding the land to Pagnotti Enterprises, a horizontally integrated extraction company in nearby Wilkes-Barre.  Growing weary of dumping, flagrant trespassing (sometimes a hundred visitors at a single time), and liability concerns due to the perpetually raging fires underneath, Pagnotti recently hired a contractor to haul huge mounds of dirt to block the core access points, like the one below:

Though these measure won’t completely preclude trespassers—that will take continual enforcement and serious consequences—it means that Graffiti Highway (east) is no longer quite the attraction.  Maybe, as a result, the emerging Graffiti Highway (west) near Breezewood will pick up the slack.  But what’s so special about graffiti?  None of it is particularly artful; the only thing that distinguishes it from the typical urban “tagging” is that it’s at least comprehensible English to the average person unschooled in gang or street culture.  And the de facto Graffiti Highway is so saturated and expansive that it sort of looks like a terrestrial rainbow.  But I saw no evidence of a great or talented graffiti artist at Graffiti Highway, east or west.  Both locations are merely run-of-the-mill evidence of the aforementioned Broken Windows Theory in a sparsely populated, rural setting.  The only big difference between either Graffiti Highway and a heavily tagged abandoned building is the novelty of the canvas.  We’re not used to seeing massive stretches of roads abandoned.  Generally speaking, roads are too valuable.  Conversely, an abandoned building is no big deal.  And we use the roads to get away from the buildings.

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14 thoughts on “Graffiti Highway in the Keystone State: the histories of two abandoned roads are as different as their spraypainted messages.

  1. AvatarElyssia Marshall Mathias

    Wow! That was fascinating! But I was amused by this: “And yes, the sign carries this spraypainted logo: a sort of infinity symbol with a boomerang protruding from it. It popped up everywhere along the trail—either this same style, or sometimes the infinity sign looked more like two very choppy waves and a lighthouse emerging from it. Must be some sort of grassroots branding effort.”

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Yeah, I can’t possibly think of what else they’re trying to convey. Must be some old Masonic reference. Definitely too sophisticated for me.

      Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    Awesome article, Eric! Here on the inland West Coast we actually have two active roadways that are “graffiti highways” that I visit frequently. Just north and east of me is STEVENSON BRIDGE ROAD. On the namesake bridge over amusingly named Putah Creek is an old concrete arch bridge covered in graffiti. This is right on the main cyclists’ loop between my town (Vacaville) and college town Davis, CA.
    https://www.google.com/maps/@38.5367443,-121.8512519,3a,75y,346.03h,76.65t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1s_eTLXmt8jbEiRw5zmPZ7jg!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3D_eTLXmt8jbEiRw5zmPZ7jg%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D34.082993%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

    Another one I have found is in the sadly misnamed foothill town of Paradise, which largely burned down to the ground in 2017. 🙁 Honey Run is an old single lane but paved road that connects Chico to Paradise, CA. There used to be a covered bridge over Butte Creek, which burned along with the town. This is another favorite, although much tough, cycling route.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7454843,-121.6615131,3a,75y,121.56h,81.72t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sp3A1KqPuRdnb4wZhNHo0fQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    fascinating examples of the juvenile mind at work!!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      As is usual, Brian, you give me new content not just to contemplate upon, but to dive into all myself. I love it. Do you know the stories behind why these roads have become so desirable for graffiti? It’s particularly interesting given that neither one is abandoned. The first of the two seems more like a reference to an obscure Prince movie (rightfully, from what I hear) where the graffiti is concentrated on that certain point–a place that apparently gets such scant use that it’s not particularly dangerous to stand their and paint the bridge’s frame even though there’s no grade separation protecting peds from cars.

      As for the second, even though the graffiti is sparse (or at least it was in 2012) it’s more interesting to me. With all those twists and turns, it could prove dangerous, unless the graffiti artists can hear vehicles approaching. Which they can, unless the car is electric. But Honey Run Road is probably so rarely used that the risk–and likelihood of getting caught–is close to zero. Virtually no homes along it for 95% of its length. Just a lonely beautiful drive.

      And yes, I am familiar with the town of Paradise–more familiar than I should be. Incidentally, I was in CA at the time, driving northward along the PCH within about 36 hours of the worst of the fire. By the time it was ravaging Paradise, I was approaching the border near Brookings, OR. Was this the covered bridge you were talking about? https://goo.gl/maps/7nrXALdyHcvqCoyHA

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Sadly, yes.

        Not sure why the two roads became Graffiti highways, actually.

        I am guessing there is not a lot to do in Paradise, and local high school kids jut started making their marks. And it is definitely high school kids, given the kind of juvenile exclamations of love…and phalluses…that dominate the road.

        The bridge…less sure. It is near a college town, but I can’t imagine the kind of striving intellectuals who attend US Davis would be involved in this???? It has been a graffiti nexus as long as I have lived in Solano County (30 years! Getting OLD! )

        Reply

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