The Rich Railroad Roots of Altoona, Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania Railroad:

No city is more synonymous with the Pennsylvania Railroad than Altoona.  Located at the base of Brush Mountain, in Logan and Pleasant valleys, it is the state’s tenth most-populous one after Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Reading, Scranton, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Harrisburg.  But it was that very mountain which first inhibited, and then sparked, its growth.

Blanketed by hard-wood forests and traversed by the spine of the Appalachian Mountain range—which stretches from Newfoundland to Alabama and serves as the Eastern Continental Divide—Pennsylvania posed an obstacle to both westward population expansion and trade with its own Allegheny ridge section of them thrust as high as 4,000 feet toward the sky.  Trans-state travel, by rudimentary tracks and trails left by wild animals and Native Americans, over the imposing peaks, required three weeks to complete—under the best of conditions.

British colonists, etching out a few clearings for farms in the 18th century, constituted the area’s first modern settlers, while early industrialists harnessed its minerals through coal and iron furnaces.  Yet their products could only be transported by wagons to Pittsburgh, considered the gateway to the west, over these crude trails.

The first remedial effort to ease this transportation barrier was made in 1823 when John Stevens was granted a state charter to construct a dual-section railroad, the first from Philadelphia to Columbia and the second from Columbia to Pittsburgh.  But the idealized, east-west rail link evaporated with its promised capital.

New impetus for the connection, however, occurred when trade, hitherto brisk in Philadelphia, was siphoned off to the Erie Canal route, completed in 1825, and legislature, attempting to reverse its effects, authorized construction of a state-owned Main Line Canal linking Philadelphia with Pittsburgh for the first time by means of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  Opening on March 18, 1834, it employed an inter-modal system in which canal boats would ply waterways to the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin in the east before being transferred on to flatbed rail cars and then transported across the 36.65-mile Allegheny Ridge section, pulled by cables and stationary steam engines.  Refloated in the Johnstown Canal Basin in the west, they would then complete their journey to Pittsburgh via water.

Although it reduced the trans-Pennsylvania trip to four days over the rudimentary, trail-plied Conestoga wagon method, the system was still less-than-optimal, arduous to negotiate, and subjected to the occasional mishap.  What was needed was a single-mode, continuous-track link, the obstacle to which, of course, was the mountainous terrain.

Its spark, once again, was lit by competition.  Indeed, destined already for Pittsburgh, at least in construction form, was track to be used by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, stretching 178 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, and approaching it from the southeast.

Fearing a second loss to its lucrative trade with the west, Philadelphia advocated a Pennsylvania-indigenous lifeline across the state in the form of a rapid, efficient, single-mode rail link.  Surprisingly, the Pennsylvania State Assembly, concurring with the need, authorized both the extension of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s track to Pittsburgh and the charter of a state-reflective line named the “Pennsylvania Railroad,” which was to construct a 249-mile extension of the existing Philadelphia-Harrisburg track, consequently competing with the Main Line Canal and Allegheny Portage Railroad interchange system.

First movement of the indigenous, intra-state line, no further than an inch, was the one imprinted on paper in the form of Governor Francis R. Skunk’s signature on April 13, 1846, changing vision into law, and such overwhelming support had been received for the new railroad, that the Baltimore and Ohio charter was revoked the following year.

Following election of the first board of directors, comprised of President Samuel Vaughn Merrick and Chief Engineer John Edgar Thomson, on March 30, 1847, surveys revealed three potential routes, the most feasible of which was the westerly one from Harrisburg through Logan’s Narrows to Sugar Gap Run and then to Robinson’s Summit (which would later be named “Altoona”), following the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers before gaining 800 feet of elevation over the Allegheny Mountains and terminating in Pittsburgh.

But the Allegheny Portage Railroad could only surmount the imposing peaks by means of its ten inclined planes.  How, then, could the Pennsylvania Railroad do so without them?  And, while both were seen as competitors, in reality, they initially complemented one another.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s eastern section, consisting of 173 miles of track from Lancaster to Duncansville, opened in September of 1850, connecting the following month with the Allegheny Portage system, while the western section, from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, was completed on December 10, 1852.  The Allegheny Portage, having already walked in the Pennsylvania’s shoes with its intermediate, and laboriously-slow, mountain vaulting water-and-rail interchange, only temporarily served as its link, since it attempted to design an all-track route.

The problem lay, literally, in laying track, which would have to climb the mountain’s rock face to surmount its 1,216-foot summit through a tunnel with existing locomotive capability, yet avoid the stationary engine-inclined plane system.  The required grade would have been prohibitive.

The solution was a long, double loop of track, which assumed a more gradual, locomotive-capable elevation gain, reducing a ten-percent grade (or a rise of ten feet for every 100 feet of distance) to a more docile 1.8 percent.

Touted along the north side of the valley, the line arced to the left, over a manmade embankment, to Kittanning Point, where it formed, after necessary rock wall chiseling, the now-famous, half-mile-long Horseshoe Curve, its gradual rise indicated by its west side elevation, which is 122 feet higher than its east.

Declared operational on February 15, 1854, it reduced the four-day journey between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by the Allegheny Portage Railroad to only 15 hours by its Pennsylvania counterpart, and caused a rapid passenger and freight loss to it, forcing the dual-mode interchange system to concede defeat.  Although it had employed hybrid technology of infantile development, it nevertheless succeeded in surmounting the topographical obstacle and served as one of the necessary steps in man’s technological climb.

More importantly, the Horseshoe Curve, symbolic of the triumph of the state’s very Allegheny Mountains to east-west travel, sparked a secondary rise—from the virgin land—of the city needed to maintain it and the railroad which had given birth to it.  That city was Altoona.

Altoona Shop Complex:

Located at the foot of the Alleghenies, Altoona sprouted from the 224-acre David Robinson farm whose strategic location, 235 miles west of Philadelphia and 116 miles east of Pittsburgh, was optimal from which to dispatch additional locomotive power to aid the climb over the increasing grade.  In conjunction with these train reconfigurations was the need for both engine and unpowered rolling stock maintenance and repair.

The deed of transfer, signed on April 24, 1849 after the $10,000 purchase price had been paid, provided the necessary land for the first railroad shops.  As the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, nourished by the area’s coal, iron, lumber, and water resources, the town pumped life into the area.

Based upon the original plans devised in 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona Complex included a machine shop, an engine house, and an erecting shop, to which were added an eight-stall and –track roundhouse and a long structure housing a locomotive repair shop, a foundry, a blacksmith, a machine shop, a woodwork shop, and a painting shop, enabling it to maintain its first, single-track connection with Pittsburgh by means of sections of the New Portage Railroad in 1850.  Progressive capability enabled it to perform the three primary functions of car production, locomotive part manufacture, and repair.

But insatiable demand required ever-increasing capacity.  By 1855, its existing facilities had been expanded and a 26-stall engine house had been built.

The city’s own growth paralleled that of the railroad complex’s, increasing from 2,000 in 1854 to 3,591 in 860 and eclipsing the 10,000-level a decade later, at which time a full ten percent of its population had been employed by the railroad shops.  They had intermittently burgeoned into a mini-metropolis of their own, with a car shop, a tin shop, a carpenter shop, a car repair shop, a boiler shop, a roundhouse, an engine repair shop, a paint shop, and an iron and brass foundry.  Administrative offices were located throughout the city.

Acquisition of the Main Line of Public Works in 1857 and the closure of the New Portage Railroad only served to increase rail transport demand, requiring commensurate capacity increases in the Altoona Complex.

Civil War-necessitated demand of rail cars to transport Union Force munitions and soldiers further rendered the Pennsylvania Railroad’s facilities integral to the effort, sparking yet another series of expansions in 1862.

But the unending demand, exerting its effects against the boundaries of its original, 1850 Altoona Machine Shops Complex, coupled with the increasing size of locomotives, prompted it to consider a secondary engine production and repair location.  The engines themselves, hitherto weighing under 30 tons and built up of smaller sections, could be manually moved and assembled with the aid of basic blocks, jacks, and swing cranes, but their increasing capability, reflected by their sheer size, required greater clearances and power cranes to move, neither of which could be accommodated within the original compound.

The Consolidation engine, for instance, weighed 48 tons, but was succeeded by the 57.3-ton Class R type of 1885.

The new site, in the eastern section of the city, was reflected by the facility’s very name—the Juniata Shops—which were constructed between September of 1888 and 1890, and offered a full array of functions: a blacksmith shop; a paint shop; a boiler shop; electric, hydraulic, and gas houses; a paint structure; storerooms; a hydraulic transfer table, and an office.  A longitudinal assembly line, in a boiler-blacksmith-machine-erecting shop configuration, facilitated increased locomotive production, which standardly began with the flanging, punching, construction, and riveting of its boiler in its appropriate shop before being moved, in completed form, to the erecting location.  Frames and forgings, having been transferred from the blacksmith to the machine shop, were now united with the cylinders and castings, positioned at the center of the building, while the boiler was joined with its matching parts in the erecting shop.

Final assembly, progressing from individual parts at the building’s west end to a completed unit at its east, usually required a week.

Like its Altoona counterpart, the Juniata Complex expanded in response to the demand exerted on it.  Enlarged erecting, blacksmith, machine, and boiler shops, for example, were built between 1902 and 1903, and a second blacksmith shop and altogether new storehouse were subsequently added.

At the end of World War I, a second machine shop took its place within the sprawling facility and it was initially used for locomotive tender construction and repair.

By 1926, the Juniata Locomotive Shop consisted of two blacksmith shops, a boiler shop, two machine shops, a tank shop, and an erecting and machine shop, enabling it to repair four locomotives per day and produce 12 altogether new ones per month.  A fire, occurring on December 27, 1931 and incapacitating the original Altoona Complex, resulted in the transfer of all locomotive work to Juniata seven years later.

Two historical events increased activity to a fever pitch: during World War I, tanks let out an unceasing plea for armor plat strengthening, while the complex’s transition from the traditional steam engine to the more advanced diesel-electric type necessitated internal reconfigurations.  Because of its increased reliability, however, it also signaled the reduction of personnel by 1957, since it required fewer repairs and overhauls.

The Altoona Works, peeking with 122 buildings and 218 acres of yards spanning three miles, employed 20,000—4,000 of whom worked in the yards and 16,000 of whom were in the shops—and produced 6,873 locomotives, becoming the world’s largest such railroad shop complex.  Altoona’s population hovered at the 90,000-mark.

Once subdivided into five locations, it performed locomotive repair and production in the Altoona Machine Shops, themselves comprised of 36 departments and running from 12th to 16th streets.  The Altoona Car Shops, located in the southern portion of the city, both built and repaired passenger, parlor, sleeping, and mail coaches.  The Juniata Shops fielded the full range of current locomotive propulsion types: steam, electric, gas electric, and diesel electric.

At 395 feet in diameter, with a 75-foot turntable, the East Altoona Engine House, its fourth location, was the world’s largest, featuring 50 stalls.  The hub of locomotive servicing, it handled between 325 and 350 per day, including the T-1 Class, the last and largest steam engine built in Altoona after a 110-foot turntable had been installed in 1942.  The nearby East Altoona Coal Dock, a 135-foot-high concrete structure based by a steel-frame and replenished by 35 daily hopper cars, supplied steam engines employed on the Pittsburgh and Middle divisions with its 1,250-ton capacity.

The South Altoona Foundries, the fifth of the complex’s facilities, produced wheels for both locomotives and cars.

The post-World War II decline in train travel, sparked by an increase in automobile popularity, saw the progressive replacement of the railways with highways, beginning a period of Altoona Shop facility and employee retrenchment.

The short-lived merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, which formed Penn Central on February 1, 1968 and initiated a $6.5 million modernization program, just as quickly plunged into the tunnel of bankruptcy two years later, on June 21, emerging as Conrail after Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 to study the precarious Penn Central situation.  The recommended, and adopted, solution was the formation of the privately-owned Consolidated Rail Corporation, or “Conrail,” from similarly-blighted companies, including the Penn Central, the Erie Lackawanna, the Central of New Jersey, the LeHigh Valley, the Lehigh and Hudson River, and the Reading railroads, and, in the event, it selected the Juniata Locomotive Shops as its principle repair facility, of which it assumed managerial control.

After a 1983 modernization program, it was able to offer a full menu of production, repair, overhaul, and maintenance services of engine governors, alternators, power assemblies, fans, generators, and blower motors, as well as manufacture of state-of-the-art EMD and General Electric locomotives for BNSF, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, the latter of which ultimately acquired Conrail’s Pennsylvania route system and, indirectly, its Juniata Shop Complex.

Still fielding some 60 to 80 daily trains, including the easterly and westerly “Pennsylvania” runs to New York and Pittsburgh operated by Amtrak, Altoona, located at the foot of the Allegheny front and in close proximity to the Horseshoe Curve, capitalized on its topographical obstacles, making an invaluable contribution to both the country’s transportation infrastructure and the Industrial Revolution, through the Pennsylvania Railroad and its shop complex, in an ultimate obstacle-into-opportunity transformation. 

An Allegheny Mountain tourist hub, the “Railroad City” of Altoona shares its past with present visitors through its Railroaders Memorial Museum and Horseshoe Curve sights.

Railroaders Memorial Museum:

Located in the 1882 Master Mechanics Building, formerly used by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a testing lab, “the Railroaders Memorial Museum,” according to its self-proclaimed purpose, “is dedicated to revealing, interpreting, commemorating, and celebrating the significant contributions of railroaders and their families to American life and industry,” chronicling the history of the railroad without which Altoona would not have existed.

Sprouting form a seed first planted in 1967, when the Altoona Railway Museum Club was formed, it was officially incorporated as the “Railroaders Memorial Museum” five years later.  Its eventual five-acre parcel of land, once occupied by the Penn Central Railroad Shop Complex and sold by the Altoona Redevelopment Authority to Center Associates, was acquired in 1993, along with the former Masters Mechanics facility, and the museum, having already had its grand opening on September 21, 1980, celebrated a second such event 18 years later, on April 25, 1998, with these additions.

Entering the interactive museum’s time portal, which transports the visitor back to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s 1950s pinnacle-of-operations period by means of recreated scenes, store fronts, interiors, voices, and sounds, he finds himself at a railroad station alive with hissing steam and ear-piercing train whistles, about to board a full-sized replica of a K-4 locomotive displaying number 1361.

The reason for the town’s very existence is explained in the “Why in the World Altoona?” exhibit.  Pittsburgh needed a rail connection with the eastern part of the state, it explains, and the fledgling Pennsylvania Railroad fiercely competed with the already-established Baltimore and Ohio for the right to build it.  Eventually winning, it linked Pittsburgh in the west with its mirror-image metropolis in the east, Philadelphia.  But mounting the Alleghenies was an almost impossible climb.  A spot of wilderness, chosen by Chief Engineer Thomson, developed into the base camp, which supported the feat and was designated “Altoona,” ultimately evolving into the railroad capital of the world.  Trains were designed, constructed, tested, and repaired here.  Its people would change the face of America and prove indispensable in its protection, from the Civil War to World War II.

Like so many chapters of technological development, Altoona, its people, and the Pennsylvania Railroad played an important role in America’s rise as a nation.

Additional insight about the area’s railroad roots can be gleaned from two films, “Altoona at Work: An Era of Steam” and “Birth of a Curve,” shown in the first floor Norfolk Southern Theater.

The second floor “Railroad Work” and “A City of Railroaders” exhibits bring early-Altoona back to life by means of its storefront and neighborhood recreations, such as Dutch Hill and Little Italy, and even features an extensive Pennsylvania Railroad model train layout.

“The Pennsy was the ‘engine’ of Altoona’s growth,” it explains.  “But the company did not build the city that made up ‘the rest of the train.’”  Although it founded, laid out, and aided it, it elected not to own and construct the city beyond the actual shops.  Nevertheless, the company’s power and influence coursed through its arteries.  Its many neighborhoods were the result of railroaders reinvesting their savings to build houses, which, in turn, provided income-supplementing rents.

The visitor can temporarily step into their shoes.  At the Newstand, which was formerly located at the 12th Street Bridge, a boy, “standing” behind it in holograph form and bordered by magazines for sale, relates tales about old Altoona.  In Kelly’s Bar, which was once located at the threshold to one of the many railroad shops, you can also eavesdrop on the talk of the town.

Several residents shared insights through the philosophies they left behind.  Sally Price, for example—a Pennsylvania Railroad clerk—proclaimed, “A dirty city was good because it meant that people had work.  We always considered it gold dust, not coal dust.  That’s what made America run.”

In May of 1936, Fortune magazine reported, “Think of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a nation at war.  The men who move these trains are soldiers on duty, day and night.”

And the far-reaching value of the railroad’s track network, which ultimately spread throughout the northeast like a spider’s web, was captured by this compact gem: “Travel is the nation’s university.”

There was no more appropriate name for a railroad than that which reflected the very state it conquered and connected with the rest of the country.

The museum’s third floor exhibits, which offer a children’s focus, include “Railroaders as American Heroes,” “The World’s Fair,” “How to Run a Railroad,” “A Report to the Shareholders,” “The Test Labs,” and “The End of an Era.”

Outside, the museum invites the visitor to “stand at the center of what was once the greatest railroad shop complex in the world—the Altoona Works of the Pennsylvania Railroad.”  Established in 1850, along with the town, the shops eventually sprouted across 218 acres and occupied 122 buildings.  Containing 88 acres under roof, they held 4,500 machine tools and 94 overhead cranes.  Four distinct groups of buildings emerged.

The shops met the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ever-growing need to build, test, repair, and rebuild a vast fleet.  In the eight-decade period from 1866 to 1946, some 6,873 steam, diesel-electric, and electric locomotives were produced here, along with thousands of standard–and the world’s first all-steel–cars, of which 16,415 for freight alone emerged from its doors between 1921 and 1940.

Today, you can inspect several types of Pennsylvania Railroad cars, inclusive of a Class N5 cabin car/caboose (number 477577), a Class X29L steel boxcar (number 2136), an express refrigerator car (number 2561), and a Class D78F dining car (number 4468).  At 81 feet in length, this “Altoona-built restaurant on wheels” accommodated 36 at formally set tables, but a later reconfiguration reduced this number to 32, along with another ten seated in a lounge section.  In 1941, the Pennsylvania Railroad served 3.9 million meals.

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark:

An innovative engineering approach to conquering the Allegheny Mountains and thus provide a trans-Pennsylvania, continuous-track, east-west rail link between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Horseshoe Curve replaced the inclined-plane hurdle employed by the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  Located 5.9 miles from the Railroaders Memorial Museum, it is included in its admission price.

With its increasing popularity as a train-viewing area, Kattanning Point, site of the curve, was developed into a telegraph and sightseeing station in 1855, while a reservoir, built in the middle of it, provided water to the ever-growing city of Altoona.

Demand for rail transport, generated by the equally growing country’s need for factory-produced commodities, soon necessitated increased train frequencies, which, in tun, required additional track to accommodate.  The Horseshoe Curve, opening with a single line, was quadrupled by the very end of the 19th century, receiving a second track in 1898, a third in 1899, and a fourth in 1900, the latter two of which could only be laid after additional clearance was provided with removal of part of the rock face–all the while accomplished while trains continued to ply the inside of the curve.

Accessed for the first time by a macadam road in 1932, Kattanning Point sprouted a small stone guest lodge at its base eight years later, but it was relegated to a gift shop and visitor center, since that very road was symbolic of what had gradually gnawed away at the track’s original purpose.  This actual station was subsequently demolished.

By 1957, operation of the park was transferred from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the city of Altoona, and a decade later, Horseshoe Curve was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The semi-circular curve—an industrial link to the west, a topographical triumph, and a catalyst to growth—represents, in essence, an act of perfection, designed by and for the railroad which gave birth to the very town where its locomotives and rail cars were manufactured so that its Horseshoe Curve could connect it with the rest of the country—a single need, sparking multiple byproducts, to serve each other, none of which could have been possible without the other, in an ultimate earthly expression of “creation.”

Two plaques attest to these facts.  The first, reflecting its status as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, states, “Horseshoe Curve was designed and built under the direction of Pennsylvania Railroad Chief Engineer, and later company president, J. Edgar Thomson.  When it opened, (it) was 366 meters across, 1,310 meters long, and had a 1.8-percent grade.”

The second states, “Horseshoe Curve has been placed on the National Register of Historic Railroad Landmarks—1854-2004.  First railroad to cross the Allegheny Mountains between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh with a maximum grade of 1.87 percent, was engineered by J. Edgar Thomson 150 years ago.”

The museum, across from the gift shop, features exhibits entitled “Building the Curve,” “Maintenance,” and the “Changing Face of the Curve,” as well as an area relief map and a small video room where the film “Birth of the Curve” can be viewed, if it was missed at the Railroaders Memorial Museum.  It is also the departure point of the 12-passenger funicular, which ascends to the summit of the ridge and the Horseshoe Curve viewing area.  Alternatively, the area can be reached by climbing the 194 steps.

A picnic table-dotted park, whose centerpiece is Pennsylvania Railroad diesel locomotive number 7048, enables the visitor to view the frequent trains rounding the three tracks which currently comprise the Horseshoe Curve in front of him or the Kattanning Reservoir behind, which appears like a blue gem shimmering amidst the verdant hills.  A train-viewing schedule, available in the Visitor Center’s gift shop, lists frequencies, approximate passing times, and passenger- or freight-comprised operations, and is augmented by the loud speaker-broadcast transmissions from the actual trains.  Dual-locomotive-pulled Norfolk Southern freight trains, emitting protesting screeches as they round the massive curve on the furthest, shale rock-hugging track from the viewer, are common sights.

A plaque lists the curve as being 2,375 feet long and having a nine-degree, 15-minute curve, a 220-degree central angle, a 1,594-foot east end elevation, and a 91-foot-per-mile grade.

A board, positioned in front of the track and entitled “Over the Hill,” describes “how railroads surmounted the spine of the Alleghenies between Altoona and Johnstown.”

The state-owned Allegheny Portage Railroad, of course, was the first to do so, its eastern terminus located just west of Hollidaysburg and its “first of ten,” so designated because it was the first of its ten inclined planes.  Duncansville served as the original connecting point between it and the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose initial mainline had been routed through Altoona until the Horseshoe Curve opened in 1854.

Concurrent with its design had been the building of the continuous-track New Portage Railroad, which eliminated the awkward inclined-plane method of travel.  Purchasing it in 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad failed to use it until 1904, when increased freight transport demand necessitated a reliever route, but abandoned it a second time in 1981.

Area tracks had also been used by the S. E. Baker Railroad and, later, by the Glen White Coal and Lumber Company.

Today, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s mainline, originating in New York and routed through Philadelphia and Harrisburg, arcs through the Horseshoe Curve before negotiating numerous, but lesser ones, including the McGinleys, McCanns, AG, Greenough, Brandimarte, Allegrippus, Cold, Bennington, and Salpino curves.  Continuing through the Allegheny and New Portage tunnels, it proceeds to Pittsburgh and the west—the goal envisioned more than a century and a half ago. 


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