Secrets of the Laurel Hill Tunnel

In the hills of Western Pennsylvania, high into the ageless Allegheny mountains, lies a workshop as mysterious as Nevada’s Area 51. As you know from previous postings, one of my favorite hobbies is searching the internets to add to my voluminous knowledge of useless information. In my cyber meanderings a few years back I stumbled across a mystery that hits a sweet spot in the interests of 20 Prospect, involving old photos, abandoned places, Western Pennsylvania, and auto racing. The Laurel Hill tunnel. Let me set the stage…

In 1881 the South Pennsylvania Railroad began work on a railroad tunnel underneath Laurel Ridge along the border of Westmoreland and Somerset Counties in Western, PA.  It was one of 6 tunnels being excavated to create the railroad which was known as “Vanderbilt’s Folly”. For reasons lost to history, the work was abandoned in 1885, after 831 feet of excavation. The tunnel lay silent for many years until the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930’s. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was America’s first Superhighway.

Rays Hill Tunnel under construction - 1880's

20 years before Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway system, the PA Turnpike was envisioned as a high speed route through the Allegheny Mountains to connect the major urban areas of the state. To save on construction costs, the State of Pennsylvania utilized the abandoned railroad grade that had constructed for the defunct South Pennsylvania Railroad. The Laurel Hill tunnel was one of six of the turnpike’s seven original tunnels, which were bored for that railroad. The relatively mild railroad grades, and sweeping curves, along with the tunnels, would allow for a higher speed limited access highway to reduce travel times when compared the first highway across the United States, US 30, the Lincoln Highway.

1942 July, Photo by Arthur Rothstein - Library of Congress

Like the German Autobahn, on which it was loosely modeled, the Turnpike was to be a 4 lane limited access road open to all forms of vehicle traffic, cars and trucks alike, with no enforced speed limits on most of its length. The Turnpike opened in 1940 amid great fanfare. It was known as the “Tunnel Highway”, due to the seven tunnels along its western half. However, the tunnels could only accommodate 2 lanes of traffic. So within 20 years of opening, planning began for widening the road to 4 lanes for its entire length. As part of the modernization during the 1960’s the Laurel Hill, and two other tunnels were abandoned, and bypassed by the highway.

1942, July - Photo by Arthur Rothstein - Library of Congress

So the tunnel sat for 40 years. It served for a while as a location for storing highway salt, used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Like all fascinating abandoned places around the world, it became the focus for urban exploration. No trespassing signs were posted, and the State Police would occasionally patrol the place, but that did not deter the fascination of the Urban Explorer crowd. Until one day in 2003 the tunnel was blocked off on both ends, and mysterious trucks and construction crews showed up and began work inside of the tunnel.

Tunnel beneath Laurel Ridge

What could be going on within the depths of these age old Allegheny Mountains? Was a secret government project at work? Was the NSC or the CIA creating secret underground detention centers for terror suspects? Was the Air Force hard at work on developing new weaponry beyond the prying eyes of Soviet Spy Satellites? Was the government hiding Alien Spacecraft with it? Rumors swirled, and conspiracy types, and urban explorers began monitoring the comings and goings at the tunnel, and posting their reports on the internets.

The 4541 ft. long tunnel was a perfect spot to perform straight line, aerodynamic testing. Out of the wind, in a controlled environment, full scale racecars could be tested in a manner previously impossible. Theoretically, full scale testing of moving vehicles in a controlled environment, would yield results that could be more directly correlated to real world performance at speed, than wind tunnel testing. Add to the mix that several racing series limit wind tunnel testing time of their competitors, and the tunnel may be a way to circumvent the rule book.


IndyCar's Area 51

As an engineer this stuff geeks me out. Eventually the race team performing the testing was identified as the Chip Ganassi  Race Team that competes in both NASCAR and IndyCar. They have admitted as much, but are very cagey when it comes to answering direct questions about how they perform their testing inside of the tunnel. And while race car testing may not be the sexiest of conspiracy theories, the “Secrets of the Laurel Hill Tunnel” remain.

Ganassi Race Team Hard at work

The most recent rumors to swirl around the place center on the development of a new prototype open wheel race car, known only as the Delta Wing. This new car is the source of much speculation right now in the blogosphere, and is supposedly a mind bending radical new design. Of course, few have actually seen it, and those that have are sworn to secrecy. But news has leaked out that “all will be revealed” on Feb 12th at the Chicago Auto show.

5 thoughts on “Secrets of the Laurel Hill Tunnel

  1. “abandoned in 1885, after 831 of excavation” After 831 days?
    Otherwise an interesting read. I’ve only lived in Fairfield, near Gettysburg, but I was interested in reading, and the IndyCar connection at the end was a reward.

  2. First let me start of by stating my great grandfather had the contract to build the original Laurel Hill Tunnel for the South PA Railroad in 1881. You state above “For reasons lost to history, the work was abandoned in 1885” but the reasons are known and it was because J.P.Morgan convinced W.H.Vanderbuilt to stop building the railroad for financial reasons. Vandy was losing money hand over foot and Morgan was concerned about what competition would do to railroad fees and convinced him to stop.
    What was ironic was I moved to PA in 1982 100 years later and worked for a courier company that leased a garage on the south side of Pittsburgh owned by Chip who even stored some race cars there in the garage on Bingham St.
    I noticed your Dec 5th Laurel Hill Tunnel picture is missing and I have one with the steel doors covering the end of the tunnel.

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