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Horseshoe Curve, NRHS - Railfan's Guide to the Altoona Area


Overview Map of the Greater Altoona Area
The green  line represents the Main Line Railroad tracks.  
Click on the area, town name, RR, Branch or portion of the main line that you wish to visit.






"As the early colonists grew in number, their cities expanded and their need for natural resources increased. Foot paths and the early roads were inefficient. New York state opened the Erie Canal in 1825 and in 1828 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was started in Maryland. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was also begun in 1828. Pennsylvania businessmen and legislators were well aware of their precarious position. They were afraid of loosing out to the people to the North and South of Pennsylvania. They pushed forward with a plan of their own, “The Main Line of Public Works.” This was a system that used a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia, canal from Columbia to Harrisburg then on to Lewistown and Hollidaysburg. In Hollidaysburg the Allegheny Portage Railroad took over, hauling the canal boats out of the water and onto inclined planes where they hauled the boats over the mountains using a series of 10 inclines to Johnstown. From Johnstown to Pittsburgh the boats were returned to a canal. This system was used a short time because, while regarded as an engineering marvel, it too was inefficient.

The PA state legislature passed an act incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) on April 13, 1846. They surveyed several routes across the state and decided on a middle option, or the mainline of Conrail/Norfolk Southern today. The PRR purchased much of the earlier canal routes for their rail beds. The railroad moved westward under the leadership of John Edgar Thomson, civil engineer and later, PRR President. The railroad ran along the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers until it came to the base of the Allegheny mountains at Altoona/Hollidaysburg. The rail route was opened to Pittsburgh for east/west traffic in 1852 and then improved and completed in 1854 with the completion of the tunnels at Gallitzin and the Horseshoe Curve. When the main line of the PRR was finally complete, it opened the flood gates of economic activity between East and West. The corporate headquarters for the PRR were in Philadelphia and their primary facility for design, maintenance, repair, and construction was in Altoona.

Altoona was built in 1849 by the PRR to service their locomotives as they trudged back and forth over the Allegheny Mountains. Within a few years the facility grew and they went from a maintenance facility to actually constructing the locomotives. In the 1880’s the PRR created a Chemical Testing facility and by the early 1900’s it was the largest, most significant industrial scientific research facility in the world. The PRR became nicknamed the “Standard Railroad of the World” because of its Testing Department. They used scientific principals to determine the most efficient and cost effective means to accomplish their goals. They ran locomotives on a dynamometer, or giant tread mill, with gauges and monitors attached to determine its strengths and weaknesses. They also tested oranges to see which produced the best tasting and highest quantity of juice. The reason was simple, they served orange juice on their dining cars every day and wanted the best. Their research was then published and made available to anyone interested in their work. They invested great sums of money and manpower into this department. As a result of their work, they set the standards for railroading around the world.

The Altoona Works were huge. Over 17,000 people worked in the shops at its peak. In a single day an army of workers in Altoona built 16 box cars, 10 gondolas, 2 cabooses, and 10 freight cars; repaired 4 passenger and 16 freight cars and rebuilt 6-10 steam locomotives. In 1 month they built 20 new steam locomotives. From 1934-1942 the shops turned out 23,000 freight cars and cabooses, equivalent to a 175 mile long train. During the first one hundred years of the PRR there were approximately ¼ of a million freight cars constructed in Altoona and other PRR shops, enough to stretch 1,956 miles, twice the distance from New York to Chicago. Altoona produced 6,700 locomotives, which is over three times the number of stars that can be seen by the naked eye on a clear night. (Astronomers say the average number that can be seen in Central PA is 2000) No other railroad came close in terms of production.

The PRR was important in all of our nation’s wars. Many of the PRR administrators served in the cabinet and other areas of Lincoln’s government during the Civil War. Their expertise in operating railroads was important in the outcome of the war. In WWI the federal government took over all the railroads until the war was over. The PRR helped moved many of our troops and much of our equipment and supplies. When WWII started, the federal government didn’t take them over, but they did require that the railroads do all they could to keep the country’s war effort moving. They were not allowed to expand or improve their operations during this time and it hurt the PRR. While other railroads had invested in diesel locomotives in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the PRR stayed with steam because they had done so much research and invested so heavily in steam locomotion. Diesels run more efficiently, require far fewer people to operate and are more cost effective. With the advent of war they were forced to run their steam equipment into the ground while other railroads managed better with diesel engines. When the war was over in 1945 the PRR was in bad shape.

The PRR was the largest railroad and the most successful corporation in world history. They gave a dividend (profit) to their shareholders every year for over 100 consecutive years. No company has ever been able to match this success. For many years the President of the PRR was considered more powerful than the President of the United States. The budget for the PRR was larger than that of the U.S. government and they employed approximately 250,000 workers.

Altoona was important to the PRR and to the nation. To highlight this, the German government sent saboteurs to the United States in WWII. Eight men were given the assignment to destroy/sabotage 12 key industrial sites. The Altoona shops, Horseshoe Curve and Gallitzin Tunnels were on their list. Fortunately, they were captured before they could carry out their mission. Of the eight, six were executed and two imprisoned for life.

During all of this time the railroads around the country had become arrogant and their business practices made a lot of people angry. Everyone from farmers to factory operators were upset with how the railroad’s “bullied” smaller companies and people. After WWII, the government responded by strengthening regulations to control how the railroads operated. These regulations were so hard on the railroads that they almost went out of business. Instead of working with the railroads, the federal government invested money in building a national interstate highway system, airports in most of our nation’s larger cities and in other forms of mass transportation. The PRR experienced financial difficulties and merged with their competitors, the New York Central Railroad, in 1968, to form the Penn Central Railroad. This merger did not work. The federal government merged the Penn Central and many smaller Northeastern railroads and created Conrail in 1976. The federal government then began to relax its regulations and Conrail eventually became a success story and turned a profit a few years later. In June, 1999, Conrail was bought out and split up between the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railroads. Norfolk Southern took over most of the Pennsylvania territory." (Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum)

For further information on the history of Altoona as well as the PRR, see the following publications, all on the Altoona Area Public Library's On-line/Digital Collection:

I have designed the Guide to provide historical information and photographs on the area.  In this guide, you will also find interactive maps which will guide you to favorite spots to photograph day to day operations along Norfolk Southern's (Conrail's) Pittsburgh Division mainline, between Tyrone, Altoona, Cresson, and Portage, PA.  Find the area you wish to visit on the map and click on it.  Some areas may be designated by a symbol or by a label on the map. This should provide accurate, detailed directions to a popular train-watching location.  You may also use the hover buttons at the top of each page for navigation.Altoona Archieves Logo

The logo shown on the right indicates that historical photographs taken by Tom Lynam ( Altoona Archives) are available.  Clicking on the logo will direct you to his photograph.

Anyone wishing to research the railroad industry can find interesting and informative resources with the federal government.  For reports on railroad accident investigations 1911-1966 via the Interstate Commerce Commission (many good PRR reference reports) go to their Online Digital Special Collections.  Use the table of contents to get a quick index by year. This is more comprehensive than just typing in PRR.  Additional newer resources can be found at: USDOT: Federal Railroad Administration 

Area Attractions

Bedford County


Blair County

Altoona, PA

Cambria County

Gallitzin, PA

Patton, PA

Johnstown, PA

Huntingdon County

Orbisonia, PA

Centre County

Bellefonte, PA


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times since June 30, 2000.



Bibliography for the Railfan's Guide to the Altoona Area (all sections):

Horseshoe Heritage: The Story of a Great Railroad Landmark, Dan Cupper, Copyright 1992,1993
Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum
Altoona Railroad Pictorial History, Altoona Mirror, Copyright 1996
Images of America, Around Cresson and the Alleghenies, Sr Anne Frances Pulling, Copyright 1997
City of Altoona, PA Planning and Community Development Department
Railfan's Guide to the Horseshoe Curve, Michael Bezilla, 1992, Railpace Magazine
Altoona and the PRR, Between a Roar and a Whimper; Copyright1999. Betty Wagner Loeb and the PRRT&HS
Railpace Magazine, January 1996, Mike Barber and Jim Olmstead
Railpace Magazine, February 1996, Mike Barber and Jim Olmstead.
"St Agnes Catholic Church 90th Anniversary" commemorative book, 1999.
"World Famous Horseshoe Curve", Steam Locomotives of Yesteryear, Harry P. Albrecht, 1973
(4) Encyclopedia
"Story of Altoona", by Clarence E. Weaver;


Photographs are by Chris Behe unless otherwise noted. Some historic postcards have been utilized. Credit is given when known. Free counters provided by

Updated 09/25/2007

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