Written By: Bill Syken
If you should ever happen to get caught in slow traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, console yourself with the knowledge that it used to be worse. Much, much worse. Crossing the Garden State was a true commuter quagmire in the days before the Turnpike was built.
That’s why LIFE hailed the opening of the Turnpike, one of the first roads of its kind in America, as a major event in its January 18, 1952 issue with a story titled “Newly Opened Superroad Unravels Chronic Traffic Jam.”
“A road like this is something motorists caught in the nightmare of New Jersey traffic have long dreamed of,” exclaimed LIFE.
The new roadway offered drivers an express route from the Delaware Memorial Bridge up toward the Lincoln Tunnel (and has since been extended north). Before the opening of the Turnpike, LIFE wrote, motorists traversing the state “had to fight their cars bumper to bumper along the Pulaski Skyway, curse their way through honking traffic in Elizabeth, spin around endless traffic circles and spend up five hours on the trip.”
With the turnpike the 118-mile journey could now be done “in two hours flat,” LIFE declared. (And that was before the invention of E-Z Pass.) Through various extensions built since its opening, the length of the turnpike is now 148 miles.The road is heavily used not just because of New Jersey’s attractions but because it serves as a major connector to points along the East Coast. In 1952 LIFE projected that “more that eight million cars a year” might use the turnpike, but now the road is used by well north of 200 milllion toll-paying vehicles per year. From the songs of Bruce Springsteen to the opening credits of The Sopranos, the thoroughfare has gained cultural currency as a roadway that is much-traveled, if not always beloved.
LIFE’s photos, taken by Bernard Hoffman and Andreas Feininger, chronicled this major construction project. The task was completed in only 23 months: a feat that becomes more impressive when you consider the logistical elements involved. As LIFE wrote in 1952:
In cities whole blocks of houses had to be torn down, families relocated, street crossing overpassed. Out in the country farmland had to be bought for the 300-foot right of way, 196 highways and railroads had to be crossed. To take care of real estate obstacles required 3,500 separate real estate deals and $17.5 million [about $172 million in 2021 dollars]. Out in the marshlands near Secaucus, engineers found six miles of the land a floating mire sometimes 100 feet deep. In this they sank large pipes packed with sand. They covered the right of way with heavy dirt, then removed the pipes, leaving vertical columns of sand to act as drains until the weight of the dirt squeezed the water from the mire. Then they removed the surplus dirt and built the highway on top.
Five years later the opening of the Garden State Parkway created a second express route across New Jersey. While you can say that the construction of the Parkway and the Turnpike was completed by certain dates, the expansion and maintenance of these roads is on ongoing project, one that this never really done, as builders race to keep pace with the needs of a nation on the move.