Altoona... 150 years of railroad history

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During the summer of 1999 Altoona, PA celebrated it's Sesquicentennial. Serving the needs of the Pennsylvania Railroad for the past 150 years, as many as 17,000 people were employed by the P.R.R. at one time earlier this century. By contrast, none of the major high tech firms here in Austin currently employ that many, including IBM, Motorola or Dell Computer.

working the track switches

The railroad brought entertainers, such as comedian George Burns, to perform on the "Vaudeville Circuit". Politicians such as Dwight Eisenhower (1952) & Richard Nixon (1956) visited on "whistle-stop campaigns". Babe Ruth came by train to play an exhibition game at the Cricket Field. Even Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955 made a promotional stop in Altoona, years before appearing with Buddy Ebsen on the TV show Barnaby Jones.

With the advent of the jet age and superhighways, the importance of the railroad and the economy of the city faded dramatically. It is somewhat ironic that Eisenhower campaigned there since his authorization of the National Interstate Defense Highway System, now referred to simply as "the interstate" contributed to the decline and only in recent years has major highway construction connected Altoona to the rest of the country.

the greatest railroad shop complex in the world

The 12th Street Shops before the museum.
12th Street Shops before the museum

Mechanics Building

The city's new vitality has been boosted by the opening of a first class museum honoring the men and women who moved the nation.

*Photo from the museum literature.

As you enter the museum, the scale of the work becomes apparent from the front end of a locomotive on display.

The original complex, which came to be known as the Altoona Machine Shops or the Altoona Works built, tested, repaired and rebuilt both engines and train cars.

122 buildings, 5 roundhouses, including the largest roundhouse in the world, covered a total of 218 acres.

*Photo from the museum literature.

steam engine and porter

inside the locomotive shops

steam locomotive controlsFrom 1866 to 1946, some 6,873 steam, diesel-electric, and electric locomotives were built there. Between 1921 and 1940 alone the shops produced 16,415 freight cars. Engines could actually be run at 100mph on a treadmill for testing.

Although the "Pennsy" had an outstanding safety record there was a train wreck just north of town about 100 years ago. It was a circus train, and for many years stories persisted about some of the escaped animals.circus animals escape after train wreck

"local watering hole"The shops ran 24 hrs a day and after work there were plenty of movies, restaurants & taverns to relax in. Growing up in a railroad family I may have sat at the very bar they have on display.

Part of the reason for locating the facilities in Altoona was the fact that the mountains rise sharply to the west. The Horseshoe Curve, one of the great engineering feats of the industrial age, allowed trains to cross the terrain by winding slowly upward around a natural basin.

*Photo from the museum literature.

The Horseshoe Curve

passengers rounding the curve

While rounding the curve passengers could look out the window and see both ends of the train as well as a splendid view of the countryside.

*Photo from the museum literature.

In the past it was necessary to climb a steep set of stone steps to reach the locomotive on display at the center of the curve. During my visit I learned that my great uncle helped build the steps. As part of the museum tour visitors can now ride "an inclined plane" to the top.

*Photo from the museum literature.

inclined plane carries you to the top

downtown Altoona across the tracksA large number of the historic structures have been lost. From the museum entrance in the Mechanics Building you can look across the tracks toward downtown. There was once an opulent hotel named the Logan House located there. During the Civil War, the Governors of the Union States met there and declared their support for Lincoln and the great cause.

The Logan House Hotel and Altoona train station
The Logan House at Altoona Station where
the Loyal War Govenors met with President Lincoln in 1862.

My great-grandfather was an engineer for the P.R.R.. He was killed in a train wreck in the 1920's. My grandfather returned to work in the "Juniata Yard" after serving in the Navy during WWII and retired after nearly 30 years. His brothers, my cousins and many of my friends have worked for what is now the Penn Central Railroad. The decline in shipping and travel by train resulted in a merger with the rival New York Central Railroad.

Railroad City databaseDo you know someone that worked on America's railroads? Check out the Call Board, a searchable, on-line database of railroaders at the The Railroaders Memorial Museum.

The locomotives built in Altoona inspired awe among adults and children alike. Many who saw these powerful iron horses became avid model train collectors who build track layouts, join model railroad clubs and even chase trains around the countryside to photograph them.

That decline in prosperity resulted in the loss of a half dozen large movie theaters where I went as a kid to see new films like "The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock" and "James Bond in Thunderball". The Mishler Theater, where George Burns and Al Jolson performed was rescued from decay in part by the efforts of the mother of my childhood friend George, Mrs. Joyce Kipp, who was a drama instructor at Penn State's Altoona Campus.

The Mishler Theatre - then and now

After living away from Altoona for almost 30 years, my visit to the Railroaders Memorial Museum restored a sense of pride in my hometown. In the few days I spent there, I visited relatives on both sides of the tracks, that live within sight of the place shaped my life, The Altoona Works.

Rairoaders Museum logo

For more information about the museum and the sesquicentennial celebration visit their website at You can also see a collection of historical photos from the 1940's and 50's by professional photographer, Tom Lynam at:

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