June 8, 2014 -- It's been called "The Big Road" and "The Monster Road." But the name that truly captures the essence of the New Jersey Turnpike is "The Black Dragon."
Sixty-three years since it was first opened to traffic, The Turnpike remains one of America's best-known and most daunting thoroughfares. A road so fast, so mean and so fearsome that some state troopers spend their careers trying to avoid being assigned to it, while those who have patrolled the highway wear their experiences as a badge of honor.
"It's always been a real source of pride for someone to say 'I worked The Black Dragon," said retired New Jersey State Police Maj. Al Della Fave. "They don't even allow troops to go out there too soon -- they want you to have minimum 18 months experience before you're even allowed to patrol The Turnpike."
For those who know The Turnpike and drive it, it's not surprising that a traffic crash -- like the one early Saturday morning -- critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan and members of his entourage and killed one of Morgan's writers.
The highway has posted speed limits of 65 mph at its fastest points, but the actual pace of traffic on the ground easily surpasses 80 mph.
"There are so many lanes, and the speed that drivers can attain, that things happen very fast," Della Fave said. "Multiple lanes, high volume. So when somebody makes a mistake it's almost certain to be serious."
The crash involving Morgan comes as The Turnpike is experiencing a dramatic decline in fatal crashes. According to The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, 2013 marked the fewest fatal Turnpike accidents in the highway’s history. There were nine highway deaths on the Turnpike last year, compared with 24 in 2012. The all-time high was in 1973, when 79 people were killed on The Black Dragon.
First opened in 1951, the 122-mile road cuts a wide, flat diagonal path through industrial New Jersey, from the urban centers of Newark and Elizabeth, passing New Brunswick and Trenton, down toward Camden and then on to the Delaware border. It was a forerunner to the interstate highways built under President Dwight Eisenhower and was developed to move people and goods between New York and Philadelphia -- quickly.
"It was built to be a conveyer belt for speed," said Joseph Collum, author of the book "The Black Dragon," which detailed the controversial history of The Turnpike and the troopers who patrol it. "Before it was built, that trip could take five hours. Now it's less than two."
Like New Jersey itself, The Turnpike displays its different personalities at its various sections: in the north, it's 12 lanes wide at points and split into four sections; alongside the runways of Newark Liberty International Airport, it feels as if a plane could easily land on the highway by mistake; and, closer to Philadelphia and Delaware, the freeway feels like little more than a standard, modern highway.
"It was designed to be wide and relatively straight," Collum said. "There's a tremendous amount of traffic and it's really intimidating to drive through. And the troopers assigned to it looked at enforcing traffic codes as secondary to what they were really out there to do, which is catch people out there transporting drugs."
That history of drug interdiction is what led to the now-banned policy of stopping drivers based on race in order to find contraband. One such stop in 1998 led to a shooting that revealed the State Police practice of "racial profiling" and, eventually, prompted laws and court rulings that led it to be banned across the country.
The Turnpike remains one of the defining features of New Jersey. It has played roles in Bruce Springsteen songs and appeared in the opening credits of "The Sopranos." It also ranks routinely among the top five busiest roads in the country, yielding nearly $1 billion a year in toll revenue.
Authorities have not yet determined precisely what caused the wreck that landed Morgan in the intensive-care unit. But, according to police reports, the crash occurred just like so many others on The Turnpike over the years when a tractor-trailer came upon slow-moving traffic too quickly and was unable to slow down in time.
"It's the black, asphalt spine that runs up and down New Jersey," Collum said. "It is a dangerous road."