Telling About the New Jersey Turnpike

When the New Jersey Turnpike opened in 1951, the impressive achievement of the road’s builders shifted to the 300 employees who took on the job of running the new superhighway. Since then, thousands of others have worked on the road that now employs over 1,500 permanent and 700 part-time, temporary, and seasonal workers. The New Jersey Historical Society recently set out to record their accounts of life along the road and explore the human story behind annual reports, statistics, and stereotype.

Stories from the Front Lines

With the help of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Historical Society reached out to former and current Turnpike employees. The “stuff” they’d saved along the way and the stories they shared vividly capture some of the ins and outs of working along the nation’s busiest toll road. They also chronicle the road’s earliest years, when a Turnpike culture was born.

Many of those interviewed were toll collectors, not unusual since their numbers are so great; they traditionally make up about half of the total workforce. Some of the earliest employees talk of what it was like to be a recent veteran and to find open arms at the Turnpike—or how political patronage helped them get their job. Most recall that employment on the Turnpike was considered desirable. As James D. Wolfe, who started on the Turnpike as a toll collector in March of 1952 recalls, “At that time, the salary was like $300 a month, and it was decent money at the time for the price of things.”

Interviewees describe a sense of pace that all but disappeared with the explosion of traffic in the decades after World War II. Samuel Kostic, Jr. remembers how it was so slow some nights at Interchange 2 in Swedesboro—where he took the first toll in 1951—that he could nap, usually uninterrupted, for hours. And in what was a far cry from today’s drive-through E-ZPass, some recollect how the interaction with drivers was often, by necessity, up front and personal. So personal, in fact, that it could make working life a challenge.

Maintenance, Engineering, Operations, and Administration and Support Services employees also had stories to share. While much of their work was deadly serious, there was always the occasional bolt from the blue. Henry F. Comeau, who worked in the Operations Center, clearly remembers the day the Old West met the Garden State: “We had a . . . tractor-trailer [that overturned and] lost a lot of cattle around Interchange 18W. And we had a big roundup out there. Except for one . . . we called “The Spook Cow.” It disappeared in the swamp, but for weeks afterwards, every evening around dusk, we’d start getting calls from 18W from excited motorists about a cow grazing on the shoulder of the road.” Ironically, it wasn’t the only time that animals figured into employees’ memories of Turnpike stories: there was also the duck tale (and, undoubtedly, many more out there as yet untold!).

Just beyond the road itself, service areas become points of interchange between employees and the traveling public. Arthur Shapiro fondly recalls the summer job he landed at a Turnpike Howard Johnson’s in the 1950s. As he found out, in an era of growing attachment to cars and auto travel, employees at Turnpike service areas were expected to offer an impressive commitment to service.

Danger and Difficulties

The road can be dangerous, too—as stories told by maintenance workers like Sam Bardach attest. “Every day you would have a close call,” remembers Bardach, who began working in Maintenance in 1951. As of 2000, seven Turnpike Authority employees have lost their lives in the line of duty, as have thirteen members of the New Jersey State Police’s Troop D, who have patrolled the road since it opened. Aside from the more obvious dangers, there are hidden threats—like pollution, part and parcel of highway life. Consider that not until 1970 did the U.S. Clean Air Act require a 90% reduction in tailpipe emissions; car emissions and particulates released while driving (from asbestos in brake linings, for example) are still a major detriment.

And though many positively recall their years on the early Turnpike, it was not always rosy. As Rocky Sorrentino tells it, in the early days there were long hours and few or no breaks. Many of the difficulties he recalls were corrected when the union came in. In 1965, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (I.F.P.T.E.) began organizing tolls, maintenance, and craft employees of the Turnpike. Then, in 1968, Local 194’s charter was issued, and in the 1970s it negotiated its first contract with the Turnpike. Today, Local 194, I.F.P.T.E., AFLO-CIO/CLC has added office, clerical, and technical staff to its fold.

Tales of the Ties That Bind

Now 148 miles of highway, the Turnpike is a unique workplace that has often brought together people from all over the state. It has also spawned its own brand of camaraderie among workers as well as between employees and the driving public.

“We were very close to the men. We all cooperated with one another: the plumbers, the carpenters, the electricians—we all worked together,” says John J. Holsten, who worked in Maintenance for over twenty years. John Cook remembers how close he felt to the men he worked alongside. Ralph Mercurio remembers how his retirement dinner drew friends across company lines—as did the Turnpike picnic. And stories about sports clubs covered in the Turnpike’s employee newspaper, the Pike Interchange, recall the friendships inspired by the workplace that went beyond the road.

For many of those who work on the New Jersey Turnpike, the superhighway of asphalt and concrete has also served as a kind of massive stage to the outside world, where shared emotions are publicly displayed. Not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, employees crafted a huge metal ribbon in red, white, and blue and mounted it high upon the Administration Building at Interchange 9. Displaying sentiments for the millions of motorists who pass by is something of a tradition: during the Gulf War, a group of Turnpike employees fashioned a huge yellow ribbon and mounted it on the building. There’s also the more personal statement. John Hechler used to perch Spuds, a seasonally decorated stuffed toy dog, in his tollbooth in an act of Turnpike fellowship.

For Hechler and for many of the toll collectors, maintenance and office staff, managers, and others who have made the New Jersey Turnpike run, the highway is a kind of imprinted personal route. In their stories—of collecting tolls, of workplace camaraderie, even of facing danger—it is clear that the Turnpike is much more than just a road. Instead, it is a place where the interplay among employees on the job and between employees and drivers create meaningful stories, personal histories, and many communities—with the roadway at their core.

Take a detour!