What Are Those Roadside Totems Along the New Jersey Turnpike?

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
June 20 2014 9:38 AM

What Are Those Roadside Totems Along the New Jersey Turnpike?

140619_EYE_NJ1
What are those roadside totems along the New Jersey Turnpike?

Hal Laessig

What’s That Thing is Slate’s column examining mysterious or overlooked objects in our visual landscape. To submit suggestions and pics for future columns, drop us an email.

Numerous readers have written in to say they’ve wondered for decades about these totemic structures on the New Jersey Turnpike. While they have a certain vertical dignity suggestive of permanence, they often disappear overnight, only to reappear at different locations.

One reader asked if they might be an art installation. At first I thought they might be some East Coast version of California’s beautiful mission bell markers on that state’s Royal Road, aka El Camino Real. After all, the New Jersey Turnpike, though many claim to hate it, is one of America's most iconic roads. Bruce Springsteen dubbed it “the golden roadway of the East" and put it in a song or two. Simon & Garfunkel, too, fell under the N.J. Turnpike's mysterious spell. So did Chuck Berry.

140619_EYE_Welcome to New Jersey
New Jersey Turnpike sign, 2009.

MPD01605 via Flickr

Advertisement

But these structures have a weirder, not-of-this-time quality—as if either so futuristic or so ancient that their purpose eludes us. You know, part Moai, part Monolith. Several letter-writers have suggested they might have a supernatural or extraterrestrial purpose (not for the first time on a Jersey road). Are they talismans against disquieted spirits—rising, perhaps, from the paved graves of our ancestors? Markers for alien road trips or landing sites?

Several readers see human qualities in these highway forms. Hal Laessig, a Newark-based construction manager, compared them to “stick figures.” He dubbed the two types as the “one with a torso and arms, and another without.”

140619_EYE_2
Totems along the turnpike.

Courtesy of Google

Tom Feeney, the helpful spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, assured me that these structures are not alien death totems (but he would, wouldn’t he?). According to Feeney—or his extraterrestrial overlords—they’re aluminum sign stands. “If a lane is closed for maintenance, warning signs fit into the brackets on the stands,” said Feeney. The turnpike started using these about 20 years ago, Feeney explained. The big advantage is that they allow warning signs to be placed without blocking the shoulder of the road.

As for why some have "arms," Feeney says that some sign stands have pairs "of vertical tubes designed to hold flags or warning lights." And others don't.

140619_EYE_NJ Turnpike1
Sign with arms.

Courtesy of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority

So why do they seem to move around? “There are holes drilled in the median barriers every 300 feet to attach one of the sign stands,” Feeney said. “We don’t actually have brackets attached every 300 feet … they’re portable and easily moved around as needed.”

See something out there this summer that you’re wondering about? Send a description and a pic to whatisthat@markvr.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.