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Breezewood - The Rise and Decline of a Highway Rest Stop

It's the Pennsylvania Turnpike Interchange most people hate - and with a passion.  The Breezewood Interchange - a junction of two Interstates (70 & 76) that became complicated due to archaic rules, rural politics and power, and an unwillingness to change.  At its romanticized best, this small unincorporated community of under 100 residents is a reminder of travel days of the 1950s-1970s; at its worst, it is a gradually dying relic of old motels and services that drivers are forced to slow down and drive through on their way to bigger and more modern destinations.

The Breezewood Strip - where Interstate 70 runs along a surface street (US 30) (Doug Kerr)

The Breezewood Interchange is an exception to the rule in the Interstate Highway System.  Depending on your direction, Interstate 70 joins or leaves the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Interstate 76) here.  However, unlike nearly every Interstate junction in the United States - Interstate 70 must traverse on a roughly 1/4 mile stretch of US 30.  A four lane highway complete with traffic lights, center turn lanes to cross traffic, and driveways in and out of numerous businesses.  This configuration - a product of an old rule that prohibited the funding of Interstate to Toll Road interchanges - has led to legendary backups typically over holidays and on summer weekends.

To understand the phenomena that is Breezewood, you have to look at its history and its evolution from a sleepy country interchange along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to nearly three decades of Interstate fueled growth as a "Roadside Oasis" Boomtown, to finally its current gradual decline of decaying motels and closed gas stations and restaurants.  

Early History:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike came around in 1940.  The 160 mile long marvel that ran from Westmoreland County over the mountains and eastwards to just outside the Carlisle Barracks in Cumberland County changed the way we traveled forever.  The no traffic light, no railroad crossing, controlled access highway would be the start of what would eventually evolve into the Interstate highway system.

US 30 was a key part of the early Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The Western Terminus of the Toll Road was at US 30 in Irwin.  And where US 30 came close to the Turnpike, an interchange was built nearby (Bedford) or connected directly to it.  The last location where US 30 crosses the Turnpike (heading east) is at Breezewood.

Linen postcard of The Gateway Inn.  Even though Interstate 70 was 20 years away - Merchants in Breezewood were already marketing the interchange as the "Gateway to the South" (via PA 126).

It didn't take long for the first business to open here.  In 1941, Merle and Marion Snyder opened the Gateway Inn - a gas station, restaurant, and bunkhouse.  Not long after, the Sunset Hill Motel opened just to the east of the Gateway Inn.  Over the next 15 years, a few small "Mom and Pop" motels and businesses opened.  The Crawford Family moved their personal taxidermy collection from their store in nearby Everett to Breezwood and opened the Crawford's Museum in 1957.  A year earlier, a Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Motor Lodge opened.  The Howard Johnson's opening was a sign of things to come.

The Boom Years:

With the creation of the Interstate Highway System, Breezewood's location and a quirk in the highway system's rules would make this sleepy village a household name.  Master plans for the system had Interstate 70 leave the Turnpike at Breezewood headed South to Maryland before turning East towards Baltimore and Washington.  Interstate 70 reached Breezewood in 1964 and turned this sleepy village into a true Interstate crossroads.

Interstate 70 would not smoothly tie into Interstate 76 with a direct interchange.  Rather it would come to an abrupt stop at a traffic light with US 30 forcing westbound driver to turn right go through another traffic light before bearing right and onto the Turnpike.  The reason - Section 113(b) and (c) of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the Interstate system.  Section 113(b) stated that an Interstate can have direct access through an interchange with a toll road as long as access to a free alternative is available.  Section 113(c) allowed for interchanges to be built with federal funds as long as the toll road operating agency agreed to retire tolls once their bonds were paid off.  The other option was for the Turnpike to fund and built their own interchange.  In short, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission didn't want to spend its own funds on an interchange - they had feared that the not yet complete Interstate 80 to the north would cut deeply into their revenues - and the unique setup that would give birth to over 50 different roadside businesses and services was set in stone.

With I-70 in place - Breezewood was where the Midwest turned South and the South turned West.  The additional traffic volumes and the dumping of two interstates on to basically a half mile frontage road became a boom for businesses.  In 1964, the same year Interstate 70 traffic from Baltimore and Washington showed up at the door, Greyhound opened a large service garage accompanied with a Post House Cafeteria.  The bus facility that sat on a hill overlooking US 30 below became a way stop and transfer point for numerous Greyhound express and local services, charter buses for school trips, senior citizens and church excursions and more.  As a result, Breezewood was not only a crossroads of Interstates 70 and 76 but a rest stop for those going to Philadelphia, New York, and Atlantic City.

Over the next 30 years, Breezewood would see an explosion of growth.  Popular motels of the 1960s and 70s - Best Western, Ramada, Holiday Inn, and Quality Inns would open under their chain or franchise.  The Howard Johnson's Travel Lodge would add more rooms. McDonald's, Wendy's, and later Perkins, Denny's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC would open.   In 1956, the Snyder's turned over the operation of the Gateway Inn to their nephew Frank Bittner.   Bittner along with his wife Alice would see the Gateway Inn go through numerous expansions evolving into a full fledged truck stop and travel plaza.  

In the 1950s, a number of the motel and other business owners formed the Breezewood Tourist Association. (1)  This group would promote Breezewood with the now well known slogans of "Traveler's Oasis" or "Town of Motels."  Many of these advertisements were by the way of highway billboards - with nearly all of them on Interstate 70 or the Turnpike as you approached Breezewood.  

By the 1980s, the holiday and summer weekend traffic jams would become well known throughout Pennsylvania and the East Coast.  Drivers could easily spend over an hour to get through the interchange.  Breezewood was becoming a behemoth.

As traffic continued to increase around Breezewood, Bedford County Sheriff Deputies had been brought in - their hours paid for by the Breezewood Tourism Association - to help direct traffic along the highway.  After a November 1987 traffic jam that sent 16 people to the hospital, public pressure began to mount on overhauling Breezewood. (2)  Some political gamesmanship was about to begin.

In 1988, Pennsylvania State Senator, Mike Dawida, was involved in a fender bender at Breezewood.  The Democratic Pittsburgh Senator used that accident as a catalyst to push for legislation that would authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to study building a direct connection between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (3)   The FHWA had become more lenient on Interstate to Toll Road connections allowing for the possibility of a direct interchange.  However, his request was immediately met with resistance in the legislature.  The state's President Pro Tempore at the time was Robert Jubelirer, a Republican whose rural district included Breezewood.

Jubelirer along with a handful of Breezewood business owners, like Gateway's Bittner, would block any attempts to study a new interchange.  Instead, they lobbied Bud Shuster - the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee whose congressional district also included Breezewood - to authorize funds for PennDOT to widen and modernize the signals along the short stretch of US 30.  The $4.5 million dollar project widened US 30 to six lanes and was completed in 1993.  With an estimated 1500 employed by the travel services offered at Breezewood, calls to overhaul the junction came to a halt. (4)

Outside of "The Strip":

While much of the focus is on the commercial strip that earned Breezewood its nickname of "The Town of Motels" or "The Travelers Oasis",  if a traveler continues west on US 30 up the hill for about a half mile.  The rural village of Breezewood is found.  There's a Main Street - but it's just a name.  A United Methodist Church, a few homes, a post office, and an elementary school are located on the street.  Back on US 30, there's a Dollar General and a local Bed & Breakfast, the 1788 Inn.

Up the hill and to the east of the Interchange is the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The mile former stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a destination for recreation and adventure seekers.  The on and off again plans to convert the abandoned Turnpike to a bike trail and possibly a state park could have a large impact on the local economy.  

The service and travel jobs have always been the key to Breezewood's economy and its impact on Bedford and Fulton Counties.  For decades Breezewood has been a source of a steady income for residents - or summer jobs for high schoolers -  in the small towns of Saxton, Everett, McConnellsburg and elsewhere.  Hundreds of residents make the 30 minute drive (or more) here to work.

Changing Times:

Sunrise in Breezewood (Adam Prince)

Into the 21st century, Breezewood would continue to remain the same - an evolving mix of 100+ room motor courts with national names, old family run motels, gas stations and gift shops, dine-in and drive-thru restaurants, 18 wheelers and family vacationers.  Yet sometime in the 1990s - maybe earlier - our travel habits began to change.  Interior corridor hotels were preferred over the old motor court - sit down restaurants gave way to more fast food - full fledged service stations were no longer in need.  Breezewood's growth transitioned into a decline.

In 1992, Maryland completed their upgrades of US 40 and 48, and Interstate 68 connecting Interstate 70 in Hancock, Maryland (25 miles to the south) to Interstate 79 in Morgantown, West Virginia was born.  Breezewood businesses feared that the new freeway alternative running parallel to the Turnpike to the south would lead to a 10 percent loss in revenue. (5)

Over the years, the small Mom & Pop motels and gas stations would fold.  The Post House Restaurant and Bus Stop closure in 2004 was a significant loss.  In the years following, staples of Breezewood like the Penn Aire Motel and the Family House Restaurant closed.  The Family House Restaurant was torn down and is now a Sheetz Gas Station & Convenience Store.  The older Sheetz station, 100 or so feet to its east, as of 2019 sits empty.  Other gas stations are vacant today as well.

The larger motels that did remain open changed brands.  The Best Western became a Days Inn.  The Howard Johnson Motor Lodge became an Econo Lodge in 1981 and later much of it eventually would be torn down.  It was replaced by a Holiday Inn Express - Breezewood's only newer hotel.  The buildings that remained were absorbed into the Gateway Travel Plaza. The Howard Johnson's restaurant became a victim of corporate losses and closed in 1991, became a bicycle outfitters shop, then a sports bar, and now is vacant.  The Ramada Inn closed as did another Econo Lodge that was originally the Holiday Inn.   

Over the last ten years, a number of fast food chains have left.  Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell have all closed.  Many of these fast food places would close as the larger travel plazas would expand and build food courts.  For example the Gateway Travel Plaza is home to five different restaurants including an Arby's and a Dunkin' Donuts.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has announced that it will move to an all electronic toll system.  With the old toll ticket booths obsolete and replaced by electronic sensors - it makes it even easier to construct ramps that directly connect Interstate 70 to Interstate 76.  If these ramps were ever to be constructed, a traveling public that doesn't need or are disinterested in the services offered at Breezewood can easily miss the slow down and traffic lights just up the road.  The community's decline would steepen.

In the past, as one place closed up here; another took its place.  But that is happening less now.  Gateway and a new truck stop that replaced the Flying J are the two major truck and travel centers while former restaurants get torn down and their lots left vacant.  While the Holiday Inn Express and Quality Inn remain popular, old motels remain abandoned and others barely hang on.  A bypass of Breezewood was and may never be built, but our changing driving habits and lifestyles might have done just that.  


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Comments

Anonymous said…
The years I lived in Washington DC and tried to get back occasionally to the mid-west, were made all the harder by that mess in Breezewood. After a few trips through there, I made an extensive search of the maps to find a bypass, which I eventually did, and then after a while airfares got so cheap, I just flew back and forth.

On the occasions I got stuck for hours there, I made it a personal mission to not spend DIME ONE going through there. That mess was perpetrated by the locals to separate people from their money, and public money and the mandate existed for over 30 years to change that mess, but the locals kept that from happening! They didn't care if you spent hours wasting gas and natural resources trying to get through there, as long as they profited. No different than the hill-jacks in Georgia gas stations puncturing the tires and radiators of Yankees traveling to Florida!

Well, I hope they made their money while they could, 'cause in the next world, they will be in Karma Jail for a long, long time!

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