As usual, I am running around my native Pennsylvania collecting historical tidbits to share with readers all over the place.
For my husband Kevin’s birthday two summers ago, I wanted to do something a little unusual. So we headed out to Altoona, where our intention was to ride Leap-the-Dips, the world’s oldest still-operating roller coaster. However, before we left, my stepfather advised us that while we were in the city, we really needed to visit Horseshoe Curve. I was only vaguely familiar with the “World-Famous Horseshoe Curve,” but promised that we would try to fit it into our plans. Since my husband and I are both fond of most every type of museum, it wasn’t a hard sell for us.
Horseshoe Curve is actually a splinter project of the Railroaders Memorial Museum, which is a much bigger facility that we didn’t have time to visit (but have already agreed that we will return to see on another trip). In the first half of the 19th century, the only way trains could pass from one side of Pennsylvania to the other was the Allegheny Portage Railroad, a somewhat cumbersome network of canals and inclined planes. In 1847, the Pennsylvania Railroad was incorporated to create a railroad that would connect Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. The only problem was that the Allegheny Mountains were kind of in the way. John Edgar Thomson, the railroad's chief engineer, had the idea for a route over the low flat terrain which followed the Juniata River, but then climbed a steeper grade west of Altoona. His plan would take the rail line on a very gradual climb through a ravine in the mountains, following a wide curve between Altoona and Johnstown. For three years, the railroad employed Irish immigrants to carve the path of the tracks through the mountains; the truly impressive thing is that no heavy machinery was used, since it would have been almost impossible to get the machinery to where it needed to be. Instead, the laborers used picks and shovels, working steadily to create the vital passage westward. The shape of the curve inspired the name Horseshoe Curve, and it opened on February 15, 1854.
In 1879, the first-ever observation area for viewing trains was created at Horseshoe Curve. The engineers established a green park with observation space, and it became - and remains - a must-visit for railroad enthusiasts across the country. Water reservoirs for the city of Altoona were added to the area, enhancing the attraction to sightseers. The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago featured an exhibit by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which included a raised-relief scale model of Horseshoe Curve. The curve was so essential that during World War II, it was one of the industrial assets targeted for sabotage by Nazi spies in their Operation Pastorius, though fortunately this never happened.
The visitor's center, including a museum of Horseshoe Curve history, opened in 1992. It houses a trove of artifacts and memorabilia related to Horseshoe Curve itself and also to its impact on the area. There are actual photographs from the construction of the railroad, uniforms from Altoona's baseball team the Curves, and various models and maps of the tracks and terrain. Displays recall that the Curve was a popular stop for Presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail, and that one woman actually gave birth to a daughter while aboard a train rounding the Curve. Visitors can sit and watch informational films about the Curve's construction and importance; the museum also houses a gift shop.
After touring the museum, if the weather permits, visitors are welcome to climb the 194 stone stairs or use the funicular to ride up the steep incline to the observation park. This green space provides railroad fans with a safe place to watch the trains traversing the four tracks. There are also permanent displays of train cars parked here, clear views of the Altoona reservoirs, and a number of additional informational displays providing facts and figures about the Curve and the trains which use it. Access to the observation park is only allowed during the museum's operating hours.
Please note: As of this writing, the funicular is closed for maintenance and upgrades; check the official website before visiting. Admission tickets are currently discounted due to the inconvenience. Visitors who are unable or unwilling to use the stairs are invited to instead make use of the museum's livestream to watch the trains.
Horseshoe Curve and its museum are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Currently, due to the closure of the funicular, tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for children between the ages of 4 and 11, with those aged 3 and under admitted free. Persons presenting valid ID may be eligible for senior, college student, military, or railroader discounts. Combination tickets for both the Curve and the Railroaders Memorial Museum are also available Wednesday through Sunday.
World-Famous Horseshoe Curve https://www.railroadcity.org/curve.html
2400 Veterans Memorial Highway
Altoona, PA 16601
* * *
Laura Klotz is a published author and historian whose family has lived in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region for more than 300 years. Through her weekly blog, MarkerQuest, she explores the rich history of her native state and shares both the well-known and the lesser-known stories behind Pennsylvania’s historical marker program. Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com