Building the New Jersey Turnpike

Pennsylvania had one; so did Maine. In the late 1940s, New Jersey decided it needed one, too: a modern, high-speed turnpike. By late 1951, it was a reality. In this story—a story about creating one of the greatest American constructions of the 20th century—lie tales of enormous challenge, difficult choices, and evolving attitudes about roads.

Planning and Construction

We can only wonder what General W.W. Wanamaker really thought when he was hired to oversee construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, a $230 million project. True, he'd have a workforce of 10,000 at the ready, and there were some 600 engineers on the project. But the schedule was grueling: the 118-mile road had to be completed in roughly two years. And it would mean cutting through heavily settled areas, figuring out how to build in the muddy swamps of the Meadowlands, and meeting major technological challenges. This would be a complex undertaking involving planning, routing, traffic estimates, and more.

New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll raised the idea for a new, major state highway in his 1947 inaugural address. One year later, the "New Jersey Turnpike Authority Act" became law. It specified financing for a turnpike and the creation of an independent authority to oversee its planning, construction, and maintenance. Planners envisioned the Turnpike as a superhighway that would connect the population centers of New York City and Philadelphia, pass through concentrations of industry and commercial activity, and provide a link to all existing major highways.

Before the Authority could build the Turnpike, it needed to decide the road's path. It commissioned engineering studies, decided on a route, and rapidly acquired land. Ultimately, the Authority acquired more than 3,400 separate parcels of real estate, most during 1950, at a cost of about $18 million.

Construction began in 1950. The road was divided into seven segments, and work proceeded simultaneously, with massive amounts of supplies and equipment. Grading and drainage required moving some 750,000 cubic yards of earth each week; paving more than 4 million square yards of surface area required the largest concentration of paving equipment ever on a single project. There were many engineering challenges; chief among them was how to span the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, both navigable waterways. Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast tried to inspire all those involved to keep to the schedule.

Somehow, it all got done. The first section opened in November, 1951; three others followed, with the last nine miles from Newark to the George Washington Bridge opening on January 15, 1952.

The road was greeted with widespread acclaim. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed it "the most spectacular piece of highway ever built" in its December 1951 issue; the professional journal Civil Engineering called the Turnpike "tomorrow's highway built today." Replete with soaring music and inspired narration, movies created by the Turnpike Authority and companies with a stake in its construction sang the road's praises and hailed it as a modern phenomenon.

Design and Promotion

In fact, this road was modern, and it looked it. Some of the "look" was inspired by traffic considerations. Smooth, stoplight-free stretches, multiple lanes in each direction, and wide, swooping interchanges—all part of an effort to make the road safe—added up to a different kind of highway appearance, and Turnpike literature promoted driving on the road as a novel, modern experience.

And the road's structures were something "new." The streamlined design aesthetic adopted by the Turnpike architects for service areas, toll plazas, and the Administration Building in East Brunswick only added to the sense of the novelty the road evoked. They were clean, functional, and sleek. Architectural historian Robert M. Craig labels the style "Streamlined Moderne," a type of architecture for "buildings served by and serving the automobile." Emerging in the 1930s, this style—part of "an increasingly automobile-centered way of life"—drew on ideas about aerodynamics, speed, progress, and efficiency. Chronicled in photographs and on postcards, not only did these structures look modern, but their very function was modern, part of a new American lifestyle.

Choices and Consequences

New Jersey finally had its own Turnpike—fast, modern, sleek, and spectacular. It had not come to pass without opposition, though, and in the Turnpike lie important stories about America's changing attitudes towards road building.

In creating the Turnpike, the Authority had faced few challenges; for the most part, 1950s residents supported building the road. Those in its way had little recourse, even though choices that had been made about the road's route held serious ramifications for the homes and businesses that lay in its path. In Elizabeth, where a residential neighborhood lay directly in the Tunpike's way, more than 200 families lost their homes, even though the city went to court to divert the road's path.

In 1971, when the Authority proposed expanding lanes between Edison and New Brunswick, though, attitudes about road building had changes. Public outcry raised questions about environmental impact and urban sprawl. Local residents took action to oppose the expansion and were ultimately successful in gaining concessions that would have been unheard of decades before. "Building" the Turnpike would never again be a given.

Take a detour!