Historical Markers
Altoona Historical Marker
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Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Just off of 36S at the intersection of Plank Road (Old US 220) and 36 (Logan Blvd.)

Dedication Date:
April 1947

Behind the Marker

"The Horseshoe Curve IS the Pennsylvania Railroad."
                                  -Headline. Altoona Tribune, August 18, 1932.

To the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the city of Altoona meant many things. It was the place where the company established its system-wide locomotive and car building and repair shops, the largest such complex in the world. It was the site of PRR's impressive markerLogan House hotel, where passengers disembarked for food and rest. And it was the jumping-off point for the PRR's own line over the Alleghenies when the time came to end its dependence on the state's markerAllegheny Portage Railroad. But for the traveling public, it will probably always be known as the site of Horseshoe Curve, one of the earliest and most enduring engineering landmarks in American railroad history.

By late 1850, PRR had finished building its 132-mile eastern section from Harrisburg to Altoona via markerLewistown and the Juniata River Valley. Lying west of the mountains was the western section, eighty-five miles from a point near Johnstown to Pittsburgh. With the hardest and most costly work still ahead, the railroad ran out of money to connect the two disjointed sections. Doing so meant tackling the Allegheny Escarpment or Allegheny Front, a 2,300-foot-high mountain ridge. Heavy excavation was needed to close the gap, which involved blasting out deep cuts and dumping hundreds of tons of earth and rock to build high fills. It also meant driving a 3,600-foot-long tunnel under the mountaintop town of Gallitzin, twelve miles west of Altoona.
<i>The Horseshoe Curve</i>, by Grif Teller Oil on canvas of the entire expanse of the curve, providing a bird's eye view. Image includes three trains traveling around the four-track curve.  It is summer and the mountains are lush and green.
The Horseshoe Curve, by Grif Teller

Lacking funding to finish the forty-mile-long Mountain Division, PRR used the state-owned and state-operated Allegheny Portage Railroad as a stopgap method to join its two completed sections. PRR's chief engineer, markerJ. Edgar Thomson detested this arrangement. He believed that PRR should wean itself from dependence on the state's railroad, which was plagued with delays, breakdowns, and political patronage. The interruptions hampered PRR in its quest to stay competitive with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to the south and the New York and Erie Railroad to the north. Thomson argued that it was time to borrow money to complete the job, but the PRR directors for whom Thomson worked, fiscally conservative Philadelphia merchants who were willing to accept the status quo of a patched-together system, turned him down.

Sidestepping the Board of Directors, Thomson placed ads in Philadelphia newspapers on February 2, 1852, the morning of the annual stockholders" meeting. These ads spelled out his case for issuing bonds to make up the $4 million gap between the more than $8 million already spent and an estimated $12 million total cost to complete the project. The very next day, a new Board of Directors elected Thomson as PRR's president. And when stockholders voted later that year, they overwhelmingly supported the bond issue to complete the railroad - 134,680 votes for vs. 754 votes against. In September 1852, bonds were issued and the money was raised.

Altoona was now at the very hub of construction and on the cusp of an engineering challenge. The railroad climbed more than 800 feet in altitude in the 132 miles from Harrisburg to Altoona. To get from there to the top of the mountain at Gallitzin it now needed to climb nearly one thousand feet more in just the twelve miles. Thomson saw that he could build either a straight-on approach with a steep grade up the Allegheny Front, or an indirect looping track with an easier grade. He chose the latter, taking a mile-plus detour down a side valley to a knob known as Kittanning Point, and then doubling back to gain altitude.
Altoona–Horseshoe Curve Stereo-view
Altoona–Horseshoe Curve Stereo-view

At the end of the valley, construction laborers working with hand tools, mule-drawn carts, and dynamite dug out, filled, and leveled a giant curve, 1,800 feet across and 2,375 feet long, with the west side twenty-three feet higher than the east side of the arc. At the Gallitzin summit, where the track was 2,161 feet above sea level, opening the Allegheny Tunnel proved to be an even more difficult challenge; workers battled numerous rock cave-ins, and carved out a roadbed that clung precariously to the sides of sheer cliffs. The entire connecting middle section finally opened on February 15, 1854, giving an all-PRR route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and, via trackage arrangements, Philadelphia.

Completion of the line enabled the PRR to run passenger trains straight between the state's two major cities, completing the journey in thirteen hours rather than 3-1/2 days required on the state's interconnected markerPennsylvania Main Line Canal, markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad, and Allegheny Portage Railroad. Eventually, the big semicircle five miles west of Altoona became known as Horseshoe Curve and grew into a scenic attraction for railroad passengers. A small park, built in 1880 in the center of the Curve, made it one of the earliest train-watching sites in America. The double-track line was enlarged to three tracks in 1898-1899, and to four tracks in 1900.

In 1957, the company commemorated the age of steam by placing a retired Altoona-built K4-class 4-6-2-type passenger locomotive, PRR No. 1361, on display at the park, and Horseshoe Curve was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Ownership of the trackage around the Curve changed from PRR to Penn Central Transportation Company in 1968, to Consolidated Rail Corporation in 1976, and to Norfolk Southern Corporation in 1999. In 1992, the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum opened a $5.8 million visitor center at the site.

For many years, PRR instructed its passenger-train conductors to announce the view of Horseshoe Curve aboard daylight trains. During the height of railroad activity, more than 120 trains a day passed over Horseshoe Curve and through the Allegheny Tunnel. Today, more than fifty trains a day travel past this remarkable landmark. More than 150 years after the track opened, no one has been able to improve on Thomson's original alignment. And the words of a 1916 passenger's guidebook still hold true:

"As the locomotive mounts the grade on the western side, a glance backward discloses the remarkable resemblance to a giant horse shoe . . . When trains entering the Horse Shoe Curve round the point, and turn west, the bigness and wildness of the mountains loom up in stately majesty."
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