Breezewood revisited: a more graphic assessment of America’s first rest area town.

So it’s not quite the great Evelyn Waugh novel—in fact, sociologically it’s about as far as can be—but it’s the closest I can come up with on this side of the pond that offers a proximal pun. It’s rare that I revisit an old post so shortly after the first time around, but I found myself in Breezewood at the beginning of the year, wrote about it, then returned just a few weeks later.  During this second trip, I attempted to collect pictorial details that I had missed the first time around.  The end result is a longer, more thorough exploration of the town, including some updates I noticed in that brief passage of time.  The old version is now the “slightly abridged one”.  For the most in-depth look at Breezewood on the Internet, keep reading.

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 flank 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 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, but here’s my best effort:

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.  It can’t even support that many hotels these days, as indicated by this Budget Inn that has sat shuttered for at least three years, and now appears in the process of demolition.

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 look at this stretch of highway.  The easternmost parcel seems to be reawakening, after a few years of dormancy.

What had been a long-vacant gas station has fresh, new canopies and a new marquee.

A Marathon is taking over the space.  But the other neighboring parcels?  One derelict property after another.  Using the archive feature in Google Streetview, I was able to deduce that they included 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 mom-and-pop 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).

And the center-left background of the above, with the fake mansard-style awning, used to be a Wendy’s.  That’s Breezewood for you.  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 Pennsylvania

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 seems to possess a magnet’s repellent force to stymie any activity from the next five parcels on its same side of the street: the succession of blighted buildings depicted in the previous photographs.

It’s unreasonable to assert that Gateway Travel Plaza was purely 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 in Breezewood Pennsylvania

Yes, there most certainly is—or WAS—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.  (Incidentally, that Radio Shack seems to have kicked the bucket just days later.  Upon my return visit in mid-January, it was shuttered completely.)

I was even more taken back 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.  Perhaps the biggest anomaly was in the upper level’s atrium.

Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood Pennsylvania

I wasn’t even aware that slot machines were legal in Pennsylvania outside of licensed casinos, and I’ve lived in the Keystone State a total of five years.  So we have billiards, an arcade, and slot machines—so many vices, all a mere 50 feet from a chaplaincy.   And a fitness center too!

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:

Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood Pennsylvania

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.  Aside from that blighted hotel, the other side of Lincoln Highway doesn’t look so bad.

And the Crawfords Museum has consistently held its own as a gift shop that sells primarily Pittsburgh sports paraphernalia.  It’s so jam-packed that it’s almost an attraction in itself.

But the evidence is clear: the rest of Breezewood is failing 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.  Additionally, as one of my readers previously noted (thanks, Dennis!) gas prices tend to be quite a bit higher than in neighboring states of Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia.  The patient and parsimonious driver can simply groove onward another 70 miles, cross the border, and tank up there.  And probably get a sandwich too.

Regardless of which factors ultimately have dethroned Breezewood, 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, like this one; even the external appearance of Gateway Travel Plaza features that same pitched roof with dormer windows common to the plazas at the Turnpike, like this one at Sideling Hill, 10 miles to the west.

And then there’s Gateway in Breezewood.

Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood Pennsylvania

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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17 thoughts on “Breezewood revisited: a more graphic assessment of America’s first rest area town.

  1. AvatarChris B

    A couple random thoughts from a regular Turnpike user:

    1. One “counter” to the traffic argument: with electronic tolling it’s no longer a major hassle to jump off the Turnpike and get back on…no harder than exiting a free highway. So…

    2. There is a similar conglomeration of services at the Somerset Interchange an hour west, where the exit is right in the town. It appeared to be thriving around the same time as your trip; the town of Bedford is even closer (20 minutes west). Perhaps Breezewood lacks enough nearby housing (and enough workers) to keep everything staffed?

    3. Over the past decade and a half the PA Turnpike Commission has upgraded all its remaining service plazas; Sideling Hill is just 15-20 minutes east of Breezewood and the Midway Plazas are about the same distance west.

    4. Modern vehicles have fuel tanks and fuel economy that typically yield a 400 mile cruise range at modern highway speeds (70-80 mph) and so any trip of ~350 miles or less is 4-5 hours without a fill-up en route. So there’s less demand for gas/food if one can fill up on both before leaving and after arriving.

    A combination of all these factors (along with Gateway) is likely driving the long term decline of the Breezewood strip.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Agreed on all counts, Chris. Though I might have a few questions pertaining to a few of your points:

      1. I agree with what you’re saying, but would this necessarily matter in Breezewood? That is, aren’t people forced to exit if they see to transfer to I-70 toward Baltimore, and therefore they are forced into Breezewood? Up till recently, that is no doubt one reason why it was so lucrative as a rest stop. It wasn’t optional, and technically still isn’t. However, with so many other options available nearby, Breezewood becomes less of an oasis and more of an annoyance.

      2) I’d agree, these are viable competitors and can easily find a labor pool right nearby. Breezewood has (at most) 100 people living in the “village”. And, frankly, there are people these days who seek “authenticity”: which, more often than not, means finding a real, non-chain restaurant in a revitalized old town center. Breezewood has a few non-chains, but definitely no town center. Do you sense this bifurcation in roadside pursuits? I.e., those who seek convenience and a quick eat before they get back on the road, in contrast with the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives aficionados?

      3) Yep, which no doubt explains in part why the Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood has tried so hard to mimic those other options. It has evolved where the other places in Breezewood have not. About the only other reason for visiting Breezewood is the Crawford Museum, which is (as my photos indicate) a massive retail tribute to all things Steelers (and Pirates, and maybe a little Penguins).

      4) Yes, and as one previous commenter noted, this creates an incentive to hold back and purchase gas where it’s cheaper, which is pretty much the case in all the states that are nearby.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        My wife and I are both “catch a quick bite” AND DDD types. Usually we save the DDD for breakfast or dinner at a destination. While driving, it’s chain QSR or fast food mostly.

        But the search for authenticity would tend to steer travelers toward Somerset and Bedford, and maybe even Hancock MD further down 70, or New Stanton and Washington PA and Wheeling WV/St. Clairsville OH westward on 70.

        Reply
  2. AvatarAlex Pline

    Now that you describe it this way, seems like a really, really perverse version of the “mall destroyed downtown”.

    Reply
      1. AvatarAlex Pline

        Yes, exactly, kind of the “everything under one roof” establishment v. the individual places (gas, restaurant, lodging etc).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          Good point, though the one saving grace is that Gateway Travel Plaza has been there pretty much since Breezewood morphed into Gas Vegas. So it didn’t exactly swoop in and kill the faux-Main Street. It just become bigger and more mall-ified over the years, showing that it has adapted with the times when other businesses did not.

          Reply
  3. AvatarJack Sauser

    This is a fun read. But I absolutely DESPISE this damn town (have to go through it whenever driving from DC to Michigan)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Heh heh, yeah, I have to deal with it typically when I go from DC to Indiana. Though lately I’ve been opting more frequently for the I-68 route through Morgantown WV and then I-79 up north. It’s a bit longer distance as the crow flies but much less congested, and typically is ultimately faster That may not work for you if you’re headed toward PGH and Cleveland, but it’s a possibility.

      The bitter irony is that Breezewood isn’t even a town. By Pennsylvania’s standards, it’s an unincorporated village that’s part of East Providence Township, Bedford County. No mayor, no code of ordinances. And, if it weren’t for the 1940s era law (long since repealed) that forced a separation between toll roads and normal limited access freeways, Breezewood wouldn’t be Gas Vegas. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be much more than the cluster of homes that form the back drop of your typical Christmas Nativity scene. (Not trying to knock my prodigious Breezewood fanbase by say this, but there’s no denying the truth.)

      Reply
  4. AvatarRick Nowland

    Wonderful coverage. Thank you for this. An honest assessment of Breezewood is sorely needed.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Much obliged! I’m certainly not trying to knock the place (which is uncommon among urban blogs), but its outsized influence for 50 years seems to be waning. And that may be to the advantage of other towns nearby…if to the detriment of East Providence Township (the municipality that contains Breezewood).

      Reply
  5. AvatarRobert Dewey

    Thanks for the insights into a town I’ve driven through on and off again for the past 35 years during trips to see my wife’s family in Ohio.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks—nice to hear from you, Robert! You’ve probably seen it decline from its peak.

      Reply
  6. AvatarJerry

    It seems like another “gizmo”’ retailer, such as Best Buy, might consider the vacated Radio Shack space in the Gateway Travel Plaza. Travelers certainly can’t rely on Amazon for their electronics.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Maybe! Does Best Buy have any of those “boutique” versions of its big-box locations? The shuttered Radio Shack was a bit larger than I remember the typical Radio Shack being, but much smaller than the usual Best Buy location. Of course, with Amazon opening bookstore and grocery locations, who knows when they’ll truly become a horizontally integrated monopoly and get into consumer electronics?

      Reply
      1. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

        I’m surprised any Radio Shack lasted so long, especially in a 2nd floor location. I wonder if they had some sort of exclusivity agreement where they were the only retailer allowed to supply USB chargers, phone cables, and batteries to wayward travelers, until their demise anyway.

        Reply

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