The year was 1949. The United States was flush with rapid expansion and a positive outlook on the future. Those features came as a result of the American victories over Germany and Japan in World War II, less than four years prior. Despite the advent of a new, ‘cold war’, America felt good, and several indicators proved the point, including the early years of what we know today as the ‘baby boom’. Another sign of American confidence was found in the construction of upgraded infrastructure. Citing a need, “…to remove the present handicaps and hazards on the congested highways in this state, to facilitate vehicular traffic throughout this state, to promote the agricultural and industrial development of this state, and to provide for the general welfare by the construction of modern express highways embodying safety devices including center divisions, ample shoulder widths, long sight distances, multiple lanes in each direction, and grade separations at intersections with other highways and railroads,” the Ohio 98th General Assembly passed the Ohio Turnpike Act in 1949, creating the Ohio Turnpike Commission.
Noting the intention that the, “Ohio Turnpike projects would be self-liquidating toll roads financed by revenue bonds,” the legislators pointed out the already operational Pennsylvania Turnpike as an example. The task was daunting, even in the post-war economy, but the Commission began work immediately. The first meeting, held on September 8, 1949, saw the Commission authorizing the necessary preliminary engineering and traffic studies needed for the determination of the route. What was known as Ohio Turnpike Project Number 1, beginning at a point in Mahoning County that connected with the western terminus of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and continued westward for over 241 miles, to the Ohio-Indiana border in Williams County, was financed on July 29, 1952, and the first construction contract awarded on October 18 of the same year.
Nine days later, ground was broken at the site of recently completed Pier 3, north of the Cuyahoga River bridges. Wielding a shovel for the ceremony was the Chairman of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, Mr. James W. Shocknessy. One year later, on October 28, 1953, the first concrete of the Ohio Turnpike was poured at the Ohio-Pennsylvania line, and the western terminus of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was the first connection between the two highways, and also the humble beginning of the first major New York to Chicago turnpike system. On December 1, 1954, the 22-mile Eastgate Section of the road connecting the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Niles-Youngstown interchange was opened for business. By the end of 1954, the road was completed to Elyria…65 percent of the project was complete. Ahead laid one of the most challenging areas of construction…the Black Swamp areas of Williams and Fulton Counties.
Westward construction on the Ohio Turnpike carried forth into 1955, and at 12:01 a.m. on October 1, the entire highway was finally opened up for travel. The vision of the 98th General Assembly had not just come to fruition, the financial aspects laid out prior to the first shovel of dirt being overturned were also proving prophetic. As the stated goal of the construction projects being, “… self-liquidating toll roads financed by revenue bonds,” the numbers from the first ten months of operations over the Eastgate Section alone saw the generation of tolls in excess of $1,050,000. Although that may not sound like much, one must bear in mind that this was 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was only in his second year as President of the United States. The Ford Motor Company rolled out a new automobile for 1955 called the Ford Thunderbird, which came with a removable hardtop for a base sticker price of $2,695. The inflation rate between then and now is a mind-boggling 789.2 percent. That $1,050,000 of 1955 dollars is the equivalent of well over $9,250,000 today, sixty years later.
On the afternoon of September 30, 2015, a sixtieth-anniversary celebration was held at Westgate, north of Edon on Route 49. After a welcoming by Mr. Randy Cole, the Executive Director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission (OTIC), and comments from Edon Mayor, Darlene Burkhardt, the Chairman of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, Jerry Hruby, came forward. He recalled the challenges faced by engineers and construction crews trying to construct the roadbed through the Black Swamp. “They had to dig through more than70 feet of spongy soil, the remains of peat bogs, in order to finally reach a firm base,” he said. “We salute their determination to get the job done.”
As the state has grown, so has the impact of the Ohio Turnpike. According to the OTIC, the Ohio Turnpike is responsible for generating more than $500 million annually in Northern Ohio economic activity. In addition to the 950 employees of the Turnpike, there are approximately 3,000 more employees staffing the 14 service plazas along the route. The service plazas generate significant sales tax revenues for the counties in which they conduct business.
At 12:01 a.m. on the morning of October 1, 1955, then Governor said, “Remove all barricades. Open the gates, and let the traffic flow!” Recorded for posterity, that audio was replayed at Westgate on the afternoon of September 30, 2015. With the replay of those words, the Bryan High School Marching Band stepped into a most appropriate piece for the occasion, Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway”. With this, another circle was completed as it was also the Bryan High School Marching Band that performed at the October 1, 1955 opening of the Ohio turnpike.
A lot has changed over the last 66 years since the formation of the Ohio Turnpike Commission. One thing has most certainly remained constant, though. When it comes to the quickest, most efficient, and most comfortable over-the-road transportation experience across Northern Ohio, there never has been the equal of the James W. Shocknessy Ohio Turnpike.