CRM Journal

Media Review

What Exit? New Jersey and Its Turnpike

New Jersey Historical Society;  accessed on June 21-24, 2004.


"So, you're from New Jersey? What exit?" is a common opening line in conversations between new acquaintances who discover a shared New Jersey background. The "exit" referred to is an exit on the New Jersey Turnpike, a highway so embedded in the state's culture that residents use its exit signs to describe where they are from and where they live.

The What Exit? New Jersey and Its Turnpike online exhibit explores the history of the New Jersey Turnpike from superhighway to cultural icon. Created by the New Jersey Historical Society in conjunction with the American Social History Project, the website is derived from an exhibit of the same title that opened at the society's Newark headquarters in 2001 and toured the state through 2003. Founded in 1845 and the state's oldest cultural institution, the society documents the history of New Jersey from the colonial era to the present.

What Exit? describes the experience of driving the highway and illustrates how this ribbon of asphalt is embedded in popular culture. Each of the three segments highlights the 1950s enthusiasm about the highway as well as more tempered contemporary reflections on it.

Building It discusses the history of the turnpike from its proposal by New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll in his 1947 inaugural address as a way to connect New York and Philadelphia, serve the state's industries and commercial hubs, and link the state's other major highways. Construction began in 1950 and the 118-mile road was completed in 2 years. To accomplish this extraordinary feat, work proceeded simultaneously on seven road segments. A New Jersey motorist paid the first toll on the new highway on November 5, 1951, and the last segment was opened January 1952. Upbeat press releases, brochures promising "118 miles of carefree driving," and video clips from gasoline and asphalt contractors illustrate the turnpike authority's efforts to promote the highway and elevate driver enthusiasm.

In sharp contrast to this exuberance was the early antihighway sentiments in the city of Elizabeth. The city failed in its efforts to reroute the road away from its residential areas. A postcard view shows the completed highway slashing through a dense neighborhood of homes. While Elizabeth seems to have been alone in its opposition, in 1971 several communities opposed plans to widen the highway. Opponents did not prevent the widening, but they did succeed in forcing the turnpike authority to monitor pollution levels and to install sound barriers, concessions that have now become standard features of this and other major highways.

Driving It looks at the turnpike in the context of the American love affair with the car, with smooth roads optimized for speedy travel and services for autos and travelers. The exhibit provides background on the turnpike's predecessors, the 19th-century turnpikes and the early 20th-century "Good Roads" movement led by bicyclists and the first car owners. The automobile and highway culture began around 1900 in New Jersey and the rising number of car owners demanded better roads. Photographs from the 1910s show cars barely managing to navigate the rutted, muddy roads that were common in the countryside beyond towns and cities. In contrast, a graphic from the turnpike's 1951 annual report describes the smooth ride drivers would experience on the superhighway's new roadbed topped with a one-foot deep coating of asphalt.

Motorists driving the New Jersey Turnpike in its early days had limited access to food or fuel. Eventually, small owner-operated restaurants, groceries, and gas stations found along other roads were consolidated into "service areas" or "rest stops" run by large companies. A 1950s magazine advertisement for Howard Johnson's, the concessioner for the original nine lunchrooms along the turnpike, promised the same good food and ice cream at every location.

Telling It focuses on the people who run the highway, from 300 employees originally to over 2,000 employees today. Tales of humor and hazards and memorabilia such as photographs of a staff bowling league, a toll collector's uniform, and a poem by a toll collector, illustrate that the highway became a community—albeit a very long one—similar to many other workplaces.

Each segment includes Take a Detour, which leads the visitor to an interesting anecdote; the most amusing challenges viewers to match musicians—Chuck Berry, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bruce Springsteen—with lyrics from their songs about the New Jersey Turnpike.

The exhibit incorporates only a fraction of the society's extensive turnpike collections, but each item has been carefully selected to highlight the turnpike story. Images range from historic photographs, to promotional brochures and movies, to souvenirs such as water glasses and a pennant. Personal accounts from current and past employees and travelers run the gamut from nostalgic to negative illustrating how the turnpike has become personal for many.

The website is easy to navigate, designed to fit a standard monitor screen, with a printer-friendly option. The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, and video and audio clips enhance the experience. Viewers who explore this site will find a thorough introduction to the history and culture of the New Jersey Turnpike. The website also offers an extensive bibliography of resources about the turnpike, the automobile in American life, the history of America's roads and highways, and materials for children and teachers. Links to other websites on these topics are also provided. What Exit? is the society's first venture into online exhibits, and the American Association of Museums award that the society received in 2003 for outstanding achievement in museum media is well deserved.

Rebecca A. Shiffer
National Park Service