Featured Book

Featured Articles

Travel Safety

Featured Advertisers

Hotel Savoy Prague

Sea Kayak Advenures



Search By Country:

Search Now:



Altoona, America

Before America had a love-hate relationship with automobiles, she had a love-hate relationship with railroads. Just as the automobile fueled the American economy from the 1940s through the 1960s, the railroad was the engine of growth from the 1890s through the 1930s.


But in some places, like placid Altoona, Pennsylvania, people could never give up their passion for railroading.  

When Amtrak passengers get off the train in this small city nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, they are greeted by a colorful clock that blows steam and whistles on the hour as it dominates the town square.

Walking Bridge and train viewing area. Photo by Eric Miller While those who are unaware of the deep relationship the town has with trains may suspect the clock is malfunctioning, others know better. They come to Altoona to be reassured by the hourly celebration that the age of railroading is still alive, at least here in the "railroad capital of the world."  

Most of those arriving by train come from the west, even if they have taken only the two-hour ride from Pittsburgh. They may flown into Pittsburgh and taken the shuttle to the Altoona train station just to ride along the Appalachian ridge, through the Allegrippus Gorge and around the Horseshoe Curve. One of America’s greatest engineering feats, Horseshoe Curve is still a place of natural beauty and manmade wonder.  

On the train heading east from Pittsburgh, passengers are prompted by announcements on the intercom to look to the right. As the mountain unfolds around them, they hear the story of how Irish immigrants built the sweeping curve with picks and shovels. They learn how Andrew Carnegie’s best customer, J. Edgar Thompson, staked out the only route that could avoid an impossible 8.5 percent grade and allow the trains to traverse the mountain. The announcer tells an extravagant story about how during World War II, Nazis arrived in New York intending to blow up Horseshoe Curve. Finally, he lets the passengers know that they are among the hundreds of visitors who still come to see the wonder of this national landmark each year.  

It was these mountains and the challenge they presented that gave rise to the city of Altoona, a curious name, which could have its origins in Germany or in an Indian word meaning "high land of great worth." But now, according to a popular book on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Altoona is simply "a magic word denoting the location of the World’s largest and most famous railroad complex." 

To those who love railroading and the city that still loves it, the last definition is good enough.

Today the railroad shops, which built 10,000 steam-gushing engines for the Pennsylvania Railroad, are a shadow of their former selves. Faced with competition from new forms of transportation and excessive regulation of the railroad industry, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with its rival, the New York Central, in 1968.

Soon passenger service was turned over to the newly created "Amtrak," and the shops employed fewer and fewer people, though they have consistently remained an important part of the economy. It is said the shops were placed in Altoona to avoid the wear of the climb up the mountain on brand new engines.   

As much as any employee can love an employer, thousands of workers in Altoona came to know and love the railroad. Once the height of the railroad era had passed, a new generation, unaware that railroading is smoke and grime and hard work, became even more nostalgic.

Engines on display at Annual Railfest. Photo by Gregg Miller  When the State of Pennsylvania decided to build a railroad museum, Altoona wasn’t chosen. It was located on the other side of the state where it is more easily accessible to most of the population.  

Disappointing, perhaps, but it wouldn’t be the end of Altoona. Locals raised money and built a museum, not to the Pennsylvania Railroad or to the Altoona shops, but to the countless men and women in the city’s history who worked as welders, in test plants and as mechanics. They were the ones who kept the trains running and allowed the West to be won and the nation to prosper.  

Before the Pennsylvania railroad closed its doors, it donated K-4s Steam Engine Number 1361 to the city and placed it in a park at the Horseshoe Curve.

K-4s Steam Locomotive. Photo by Gregg Miller By the late 1980s, the engine had deteriorated and was representative only of the city’s glorious past. What a wonderful thing it would be, many of the townspeople thought, to make the mighty, but aged steam engine run again.  

To anyone who has ever been around steam engines, to restore a steam engine and make it run again is like taking a fossilized dinosaur out of a museum and making it live again.  

In a strange historical twist, the K-4s engine was removed and replaced with a diesel engine of the same type that had shoved the age of steam into the pages of history. Removed from the mountain and brought back to the Altoona shops, the K-4s was restored.  

While the Horseshoe Curve hasn’t seen steam since the 1950s, thousands came to ride and see K-4s 1361 run on several excursions on secondary lines through the Pennsylvania countryside.  

But Altoona loved the engine too much and soon discovered that the steam couldn’t pull the city forward like it once did. A crack in the boiler would mean that engine 1361 would again be out-of-commission indefinitely. Today the engine is undergoing restoration at Steamtown USA in Scranton, Pa. 

Despite the emotional roller coaster caused by the K-4s 1361 rebirth and subsequent demise, citizens of Altoona refused to give up.  

Altoona has inaugurated a new state-of-the art museum dedicated to railroaders, and it is working to establish a toy train museum.

Old Railroad Museum may be site of new toy train museum. Photo Courtesy Altoona Train Collectors Club.At the end of the day when tourists leave the museum, walk over the bridge and head back to the railroad station, the steam clock blows again. Passengers rounding the Horseshoe Curve can look back – now on their left- and see the tail of the train. As they look over the mountains, they are reminded of the challenges Altoona has faced and take comfort in having found a town committed to finding its future in the bygone era of the iron horse.

For more information, visit: