By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Before the Pennsylvania Turnpike was transformed into a modern interstate highway, there was a mighty steep grade on one section of the highway west of Somerset, Pa. The original builders of the turnpike probably didn’t think that the highway over Laurel Hill Mountain was all that steep, but in the 1970s, it was a notoriously difficult climb for steel haulers carrying loads to the east.
There was a climbing lane in the eastbound lanes of the road on that mountain that led to a popular trucker’s joke. I first heard it from an old trucker, and later modified it and put my own personal spin on. The story starts off with me hauling 55,000 pounds of sheet steel, railroad rails, mine bolts or ingots to somewhere in the Philadelphia area. Most truckers knew it was foolish to take the turnpike all the way from Monroeville to King of Prussia, Pa., so the joke depended on accepting the premise of hauling heavy.
I was legal hauling 50,000 pounds across the Ohio Turnpike where the combination of tare and freight weight could be as much as 80,000 pounds. Pennsylvania didn’t allow that kind of weight, but at the time, there weren’t any scales at the Pennsylvania Turnpike entrance ramps like in Ohio and Indiana. The U.S. Steel plants on Second Avenue in Pittsburgh would load you heavy if you didn’t mind. Unless the state set up a portable scale somewhere on the Pittsburgh Parkway, I would be pretty safe hauling heavy all the way to Philly.
I did see the states with a portable scale once on the other side of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, but even bureaucrats were smart enough to figure out that was too dangerous. Hauling heavy out of Pittsburgh was not too unusual, but the only way that paying the turnpike tolls across the entire state was if the freight actually paid well. Back in those days, you didn’t travel the Pa. Pike just to eat at the Howard Johnson’s Restaurants in the service plazas.
I had a standard response to anyone who asked me how my old Freightliner did in the mountains — any mountains. I would say: “I’m pedalin’ as fast as I can,” making reference to the double-clutching procedure all truckers used in those days. I suppose they still do, but double-clutching became such a constant part of my life that I would double-clutch when I shifted gears in any standard transmission vehicle.
The alternatives to traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike back then were pretty bleak. When I hauled across the northern tier of Ohio, I could travel across Pennsylvania on I-80 and enjoy the wide open spaces. Heading down to Baltimore or up to New York City, there were cut-off roads that eased some of the pain of traveling the old pike, but this particular night, I was loaded and trucking all the way to the City of Brotherly Love.
It was easy to feel a certain kindred spirit with my Blayney, Hodgens and Eagleson ancestors on my mother’s side every time I traveled across the Allegheny Mountain Range. When your running the valleys, it’s not too bad, but even with the tunnels on the turnpike, truckers still had some pretty steep climbs. It’s funny, but I never noticed how steep the mountains were when I traveled on the turnpike with my family back in the 1950s. I used to press my face in the back window and pull my imaginary air horn for dear life to get truckers to sound their horns. I’ve always admired truckers even when they didn’t toot their horns in response to my request.
This particular night though, the truck was running good, the load laid flat and the weather was clear and cool. With the stars shining brightly, and no rain or snow on the road, I was feeling pretty good about hauling steel, until I ran into the hill ... Laurel Hill Mountain. I had a pretty good run for the hill, but with all of that weight, I had to keep dropping gears. I was in 15th gear on the flat land, but I dropped to 14th, 13th, dropped the main and auxiliary shifters on my 16-speed 4-by-4 into 12th, then to 11th, 10th, 9th; another drop on the main — then down and down. Eventually, I was in first main, fourth auxiliary, and my RPMs were holding pretty good, but only traveling about 15 mph.
Suddenly, a Pennsylvania State Trooper came up behind me at a incredible rate of speed. He squealed his tires as he locked up his brakes and flipped on his lights. At first, I couldn’t imagine what he was doing, but then I realized he was pulling me over. That was before there was a minimum speed on the turnpike, so I figured he was going to check my weight. I pulled the truck over, set my brakes and walked back to his cruiser.
When I arrived at his door, he looked up at me from beneath the brim of his campaign hat and said: “Trucker. Can’t you run any faster than that?” I pondered the question for only a moment, and replied: “Yes sir. But it’s against company policy to leave my vehicle while I’m on duty.” That was a funny joke back then.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.