Driving it
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More Than Just a Road
Correspondence from Turnpike Motorists

The automobile spawned huge changes in American life—among them the creation of the Turnpike. One of the 20th century's greatest constructions, it's easy to say it's just about driving, about getting from point A to point B. The following letters and reminiscences, though, reveal another story. Written by Turnpike users—many of who were on the road in its earliest years—they suggest that the New Jersey Turnpike has many meanings, and is most definitely more than just a road.

"Before the Turnpike was built we used to go back and forth from Connecticut to Virginia—I was a kid then, I was born in 1942, it was a drag—you'd go up and down Route 1, you'd have to stop for lights and there were all sorts of delays. And I can remember . . . the first time [we drove on the Turnpike] I thought we must be taking the same trip but in heaven. You could just get on it and run. We had never been on a highway like it. It was the talk of the East coast and beyond."

Asa E. Hall, Litchfield, Connecticut, 2001


"I was born in Irvington . . . in 1934, and lived there until I was 26. I have spent the rest of my life living in various other parts of New Jersey. The Turnpike has been a large part of our lives for the past five decades. During its construction, all of the adults in our family and neighborhood talked about how they would use the road when it was finished, and how much time they would save going to New York City, or Philadelphia. . . . In the 1960s, I used the northern portion of the Turnpike to commute back and forth from Irvington to the Jersey City area where I worked. . . . By 1972 we had two children, and I had been transferred to Philadelphia. Three, sometimes four times per month we would get into the car and head for Exit 3 and ride to 11 to visit the rest of our family and friends since they all lived in north New Jersey. In 1978 our daughter entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick; we loaded up the old '63 Ford pickup and moved her off to college by way of the Turnpike. . . . Before we knew it we were in the '80s, my dad had passed away in Delaware and Joyce's mother had passed away living near us in south Jersey. We brought them both back home to north Jersey on the Turnpike. We continued to travel back and forth for weddings, graduations, and other family affairs. We have driven in spring monsoons, summer heat, winter blizzards, had our share of close calls . . . but the Turnpike has been our friend. In the '90s we have become more active in the antique auto hobby, and began using the Turnpike to drive our old cars to and from shows. Our children now drive this road, and reminisce about the past trips they took with us, and soon our grandchildren will use the Turnpike. It is nice to know that your great-grandchildren may someday look out over some of the same fields, buildings, and trees that you and your girl did back in the '50s when all that has transpired were just hopes and dreams. THANKS NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE."

James and Joyce Wickel, Ewan, New Jersey, 2000


"The first time I rode on the [New Jersey] Turnpike, that was back in 1952 . . . it was when I picked up my husband at Camp Kilmer, he had come home from Korea. I couldn't believe it. It was in my mind that this was a new road. My father-in-law drove, he was so nervous, he said 'I don't know this road,' we were used to coming down 9 whenever we came down the shore. That was the first time I ever rode on the New Jersey Turnpike; at least it was for something good. I think it's a wonderful road."

Doris Kinsella, Barnegat, New Jersey, 2000


"[In the early 1950s] we were stationed in D.C. in the military. We used to go home every weekend [to Massachusetts]. . . . We traveled at night and we'd go up and down and they were building the Turnpike at the time and we'd have to wait forever because there were little black bears playing with the fire pots—little round pots with kerosene in them—they used to use them like bowling balls from one side to the other (leaving the unfinished portions unmarked and often starting fires along the edges) during the construction of the lower end of the Turnpike. They used to have a horrible time with the bears."

Thelma Coslow, Ramsey, New Jersey, 2000


"I remember the family travels from Old Bridge [on the Turnpike]. Albeit, my view of the journey was from the back of my dad's . . . station wagon . . . from my view, all of the New Jersey Turnpike was backwards. . . . I [eventually] graduated to the front seat of my folks' new Chevy Nova. It was in that front seat that I saw a pair of pheasants flying parallel to the Turnpike. . . . The Rahway State Prison was an ominous sight.

"The 'Dutch Boy' paint plant always assured me of the time and temperature. At this time, I did not realize that the lakes were retainment and treatment ponds for the manufacturing process. The ponds smelled sweet as candy to me; fresh paint smells the same.

"Then, the more complex industrial aromas were introduced to my northward nose. Now I recognize the olfactory 'flavors' from academy and industrial experience. The most fragrant and powerful was and is 'Methyl Mercaptan.' This chemical gas alarms our olfactory system at a base concentration of 3 parts per billion! (a part per million is about an inch in a mile). Methyl Mercaptan is the intentional fragrance added to natural gas (natural gas, CH4, is odorless) to alert a human being of a natural gas leak.

"The New Jersey Turnpike corridor industries are major producers of important man-made materials for construction, consumption and maintenance in the Northeast, the USA, and the World. Without the New Jersey Turnpike industries, products, and people, we will all experience loss, increased cost, and liabilities."

John C., Austin, Texas, 2000


"[The New Jersey Turnpike] is a busy, noisy, dirty, smelly and boring highway that gets you from New York to Delaware. There is nothing to look at or admire on the way."

Victor P. Torchia, Jr. and Ben Ortiz, Ridgefield, Connecticut, 2000


"After [the New Jersey Turnpike] opened [in 1951], we would go out just to drive on it going no place in particular. It was well marked and you could tell just how far it was to the next exit by the signs posted as you came on. One of the favorite places for those of us who were young was to drive down the Turnpike to one of the newly opened service areas and have coffee in the restaurant. . . . You have to realize that at that time turnpike driving was generally unknown."

Jack Francis, Conyers, Georgia, 2000


"The Turnpike is a swaggering giant that plows through the industrial heartland of the East Coast, overpowering even the mighty landscape of refineries, airports, and tank farms that have the temerity to get in its path. It is a muscular 12 lanes wide, formed of masses of concrete, steel, and asphalt. It is not a subtle roadway, it is straightforward; indeed, it is virtually straight! Its beauty is in its simplicity.

"This does not mean, however, that the Turnpike is without its sublimities. First of all is the sheer scale of the roadway. We architects tend to assign high value to the buildings we design. But the modern superhighway—and the Turnpike is its apotheosis—dwarfs the skyscraper in size as well as impact on the urban landscape. And for those willing to take the time to see the Turnpike not only as a roadway, but also as space, structure, and surface, the reward is great. Take a drive under the great causeway over the Meadowlands north of Exit 15 and you will see the modern equivalent of the Roman aqueducts. . . . "

R. Gregory Turner, Houston, Texas, 2000