Welcome to the New Jersey Turnpike!

The most modern, the most heavily traveled highway in the world -- a triumph of engineering skill and far-sighted planning!

Driving onto the New Jersey Turnpike is like entering a new world; a world without stoplights or sharp curves; a world created especially for motoring pleasure.

Need a tow? The Cities Service truck will be there to assist you. Need directions? Stop at our tourist information booths and ask our friendly Pikettes!

The narrator's chipper voice made it seem so pleasant. Here, on the 1950s-era short film, was America on the go -- charging hard in Plymouths and DeSotos along a ribbon of asphalt known as the New Jersey Turnpike.

It was new. It was exciting. It was even sexy, especially with those pert Pikettes in their stewardess-like uniforms handing out maps at the rest areas.

From the moment the dream toll road took shape in 1949, it was a symbol of New Jersey's motorized future.

And if that future had a visionary, he was Gov. Alfred Driscoll.

When Driscoll was elected in 1946, the nation's most densely populated state was facing a transportation crisis.

The end of World War II was an opportunity for more Jerseyans to buy cars, move to the suburbs and just drive around with the family. The number of cars choking the state's main arteries -- Route 1, Route 9, Route 130 -- doubled in just five years. The levels of smog and frustration were high.

Driscoll's solution was a toll road. It would stretch from Delaware Bay to the George Washington Bridge, linking Philadelphia and New York. Its mainline would stretch an initial 118 miles, including 16 miles through the rural fringes of Mercer County.

All of it would be divided highway. None of it would have a stoplight or a left-hand turn. It would be the safest, fastest road possible, Driscoll promised.

Pennsylvania had already built a state turnpike six years before, but that road had the advantage of an abandoned railroad right-of-way. The Jersey 'Pike would be built from scratch, right up the gut of the most crowded transportation corridor in America.

The Turnpike Authority was created by special legislation on April 14, 1949 to run the operation. It was -- and still remains -- a unique hybrid with the powers of a public agency, the independence of a private business. It issued revenue bonds to finance the road based solely on future tolls -- with not a single cent of tax money to back it up.

The authority headquarters were a three-room suite in the State House in Trenton. From its beginning, the mood was one of rush, rush, rush. A sign in the office proclaimed: "THE TURNPIKE MUST BE DONE / BY NOVEMBER FIFTY-ONE!"

In the frenzy to build, no one talked about whether the tolls might eventually be done away with. No one fretted about suburban sprawl. No one even thought to hire a landscape architect.

The lack of frills was deliberate. The bond market had to be convinced that this unprecedented project -- it cost $230 million -- would be efficient and workable.

Turnpike employees drew up maps, fussed over bidding contracts and pulled political strings to get the job done. One of them, Lillian Schwartz, recalled in a 1988 interview how she awoke at 4 a.m. to put in 12-hour shifts without a lunch break, then went home "so tired, I was ready to cry."

As politicians got a sense of the Turnpike's possibilities, dollar signs lit up in their eyes.

Burlington County's Republican boss, Clifford Powell, finagled a secret deal in 1948 to buy the Burlington-Bristol Bridge and Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, two toll spans that would be vital to link the Turnpike to Pennsylvania. Then Powell drew up a plan to sell the bridges back to the county, which would generate millions in revenue. Powell would, not incidentally, stand to gain a fortune.

Driscoll, a fellow Republican, was furious and got the state Supreme Court to strike down the deal as a "fraud." But other of his GOP allies made out better speculating in land the Turnpike would buy in order to pave over.

"The real-estate function of the authority was run by political appointees," said Howard Hayden, who began working as an engineer for the authority in 1952. "I don't have any doubt that word got out about the right of way, and some people made a killing."

Yet farmers, not speculators, owned much of the land in the Turnpike's path. In East Windsor alone, dozens of farms disappeared under black asphalt: the Campbell farm, the Hancock farm, the Zaitz farm.

To expedite things, Turnpike negotiators would approach a landowner with a "right-of-entry" permit allowing contractors to start work on the property, and promising to appraise and pay for the land later. Once the owner signed it, bulldozers and pavers might roar up to his doorstep before the ink was dry.

Most farmers made out generously, and only 10 percent challenged their appraisals. Others found the road to be good for business.

Dairy farmer Clifford Conover, for instance, put up a sign visible from the Turnpike that featured two cut-outs of milking cows. "It was the best advertising I could have had," Conover said. "People all over the country knew about Conover's Guernsey Dairy."

The Turnpike's effect on East Windsor was a mixed bag. Housing developments boomed for people who wanted to work in New York City and live in the far suburbs. They drove on the Turnpike, and on the bypass highway, Route 130. But they did not shop in nearby Hightstown, and the borough fell into steady decline.

Similar tales of woe came from other towns bypassed by the 'Pike: Bordentown, South Brunswick, Cranbury, Deptford. Hardest hit was the city of Elizabeth, where $1 million in ratables were swallowed up by the highway and whole neighborhoods cleaved in two.

Yet the Turnpike was truly a tremendous engineering accomplishment.

To build it, enough dirt was hauled away to fill three trains extending from New York to San Francisco. A spectacular bridge was erected to carry traffic underneath the Pulaski Skyway. Huge tracts of the Meadowlands were filled in to stabilize the road bed.

The Turnpike Authority had pledged to finish its job by "NOVEMBER FIFTY-ONE." It made it, just barely. On Nov. 30, 1951, the Turnpike was opened to traffic between its southern terminus and Woodbridge.

Driscoll led a mile-long motorcade from the War Memorial in Trenton to the Hightstown interchange. There he cut a ribbon to declare the great road open.

"The Turnpike," he declared, without a hint of irony, "has permitted New Jersey to emerge from behind the billboards, the hot dog stands and the junkyards. Motorists can now see the beauty of the real New Jersey."

The Turnpike opening was an exciting moment. Hundreds of cars had lined up for the chance to be the first one on the road. The man who won, after waiting four hours, was Omero Catan of Queens, N.Y.

Within a few months, the Turnpike was accommodating more cars than it had projected -- more, in fact, in 1952 than it had expected by 1960. Excited motorists poured onto its cloverleaf interchanges by the millions and zoomed past the 60 mph speed limit.

In the North, the Turnpike became "dual-dual," splitting into separate lanes for cars and trucks in both the southbound and northbound lanes. Another unique feature: all the rest areas were reached by making right turns.

Collier's magazine called the Turnpike "New Jersey's Dream Road." In 1956, Chuck Berry celebrated it in song as the ultimate place to drag-race: "I let out my wings and I blew my horn. Bye Bye New Jersey, I've become airborne."

And the same year, President Eisenhower signed into law the Interstate Highways Act, much of it inspired by the successful example of the Turnpike.

Accelerate 43 years forward. Now it's 1999, and the Turnpike is bigger than ever, wider than ever, busier than ever. More than 500,000 vehicles roar along it day. At one point, between Exits 11 and 14, the Turnpike swells to an incredible 14 lanes.

Remember the Pikettes? They're gone now. Instead, drivers get surly toll collectors.

And where Driscoll expected "the beauty of the real New Jersey," the Turnpike's most vivid scenery is in Elizabeth, where the hellish fires of oil refineries light up enormous, white, spooky storage tanks.

Once the Turnpike's volume was dazzling. Now it's repulsive, at least to those who cherish the genteel and pastoral. For out-of-state travelers, New Jersey
is the Turnpike -- a domain of sprawl, garish surroundings and high-speed menace.

No one disputes the efficiency and safe design of the Turnpike itself. If anything, it's one of the safest roads in America.

"The Turnpike is a work of brilliance," said Alan Karcher of Princeton, a former speaker of the state Assembly and author of a book on New Jersey's urban decay. "It was a brilliant job of building an efficient, big and ugly road that moves people out of the cities with great speed. And that's all it does."

In 1989, Michael Rockland co-wrote "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike" with fellow Rutgers professor Angus Gillespie. It was a book that described the 'Pike as "cold, dark, austere, a largely lifeless environment over which humans scamper as fast as their motor vehicles, and the law, will allow."

But for Rockland, the Turnpike's very coldness is a source of fascination.

"It's like a legacy from the 1950s and the World of Tomorrow," Rockland said. "It is ugly. But it's also a symbol of something that's very American."
Back to The Capital Century home page
1949: Highway of dreams
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
The Turnpike bridge over the Passaic River under construction in 1951.
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