One of my summer memories growing up was piling into my grandpa’s Impala with my dad and brother, and getting on the Ohio Turnpike at the Mahoning Avenue exit (before I-680 and I-76) and driving to Cleveland for an Indians game. I think it was my first time on the Turnpike and the first time I had ever been a car going that fast. The speed limit then (and now) was 70 miles per hour and I couldn’t believe how quickly the scenery whizzed by.
This was still in the early days of the Interstate system, so when we got off on Route 14 (Broadway) we still had a long ride on surface roads to get to downtown Cleveland. We stopped along the way at a bar and got a really good dinner. As I remember, the Indians won that night on a home run by Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner.
Before the Ohio Turnpike, the trip would have been even longer, taking Mahoning Avenue (Route 18) to the intersection with Route 14, or, if you were further north, taking Route 422 into Cleveland. Turnpikes were among the first limited access roads modeled on the European autobahns that allowed rapid travel across country as automobiles grew in size, comfort and power after World War II. Years later, with connecting freeways, I was able to commute from Maple Heights, outside Cleveland where we lived for a time, to Youngstown in under an hour. I think I remember the tolls being $.55 each way. That has changed.
I went on lots of trips with my grandfather when I was young, many on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was built earlier than the Ohio Turnpike. Two things I remember: Howard Johnson’s and tunnels. I would love it when we would stop at a Howard Johnson’s for a burger and fries and some ice cream. Tunnels were another thing and kinda scary, at least the first time we went through one. I always remember the trip we took to Gettysburg and Lancaster as a kid–lots of tunnels and a few stops at HoJo’s on the way–they had a monopoly on rest areas on the turnpikes back then.
Back to the Ohio Turnpike. When we were first married, my wife and I lived in Toledo. Once again, the Ohio Turnpike was the way back home to visit our parents, and we did it quite a bit over the four years we lived there. It was about a three hour trip, particularly when speed limits were lowered during the Carter administration to 55 miles per hour. It was hard not to push that but the Ohio Highway Patrol was notorious for ticketing. Perhaps one of the most harrowing of winter drives was returning home in a blizzard with large snow flakes coming straight at the windshield–very disorienting–I think we followed a semi most of the way back and were glad the driver didn’t go off the road because we would have followed him.
During the 70’s and 80’s we kept hearing that the Ohio Turnpike would go toll-free when they retired the debts for its construction. Somehow, that never happened and tolls were raised to fund upgrades and additional interchanges to the original eighteen. Since 2009, the Ohio Turnpike has joined the system of tollroads using EZ-Pass compatible systems. Now it costs $12.25 to go from one end of the Turnpike to the other with an EZ-Pass and $17.75 without one. Generally, I’ve found it is one of the best maintained roads in the country on the rare instances we’ve used it in recent years and it would probably deteriorate if they ever took the tolls off.
One of the things the Turnpike did to Youngstown and other cities was to make them places people passed by rather than through. I have many friends, who when I mention growing up in Youngstown will say they’ve driven by there on the way to New York or other places east. Some may have stopped at hotels near exits south or north of town and for many, that seems to get as close to Youngstown as they get, unless I can persuade them of the good restaurants and places like Mill Creek Park and the Butler that are worth a visit. Most, instead of stopping at a local bar like we did going to Cleveland or a local restaurant, probably will stop at one of the chains. That’s one thing turnpikes and Interstates have changed.