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Pennsylvania Railroad Shops
Organized in 1846, the Pennsylvania Railroad grew to become the standard against which all other railroads were measured. Driven by its chief engineer and president, J. Edgar Thomson, by 1852 the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) finally provided a direct and efficient route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by surmounting the Allegheny Mountains. In 1854, Horseshoe Curve, a triumph in engineering that reached the Allegheny Summit, was completed. Increased traffic and successful business prompted a new wave of expansion, and by 1874 the rails had grown from less than 500 miles to nearly 6,000. America's first giant corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad, reflected nearly $400 million of investments.
Pushed by the explosive expansion of the rails, the Pennsylvania Railroad sought a site to locate its primary shops and repair facilities. The land chosen, now Altoona, provided the PRR with a vantage position from which to push the railroad over the Allegheny Summit, as opposed to through, under and around. The land purchased was divided by the railroad tracks, which ran down the center of town. Streets were laid out parallel to the tracks and in 1852 the first shop was in production.
Designed to serve as the location for the repair and construction of locomotives, the Altoona Railroad Shops stimulated the settlement and development of the town. As people came to obtain employment, Altoona's population nearly tripled between 1860 and 1870. Building and repairs for the entire railroad shifted there from former centers in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, placing Altoona at the center of PRR's operations.
Some of the most important developments in the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the American railroad industry occurred at the Altoona Shops. A standardized car design was patented in 1859, creating interchangeability of parts and the rise of a modern factory-like production of parts. Formerly crafted by hand and requiring great skill and an unerring eye, the standardized car opened the industry to faster production methods and the use of unskilled laborers. It was also at Altoona that coal, first used experimentally, gradually replaced wood and then dominated as fuel for locomotives. Steel rails were introduced and traffic rapidly increased, even during the years of the Civil War.
These events precipitated the expansion of the Shops, resulting in additional machine shops, blacksmith shops, and a large new roundhouse. Altoona began producing its own locomotives in 1866, based on standardized drawings for eight separate classes. The construction released the PRR from its dependence on commercial locomotive builders, such as Baldwin and Norris, and further increased the modern production-like facilities. By 1873, nearly half the locomotives in service on the PRR lines were "standard" locomotives. Expansion and construction continued, producing a paint shop, upholstery shop, special machinery shops, and a planning mill. Altoona's population, bolstered by the railroad, reached nearly 20,000 by 1880.
By 1920, the Pennsylvania Railroad reached its peak at 11,000 miles of track. It was also the 1920s that foreshadowed the decline of the railroad, as automobiles and trucks began to compete seriously with the railroads for passengers and freight. Producing its famous K-4 locomotives, the Shops remained a vibrant, productive center throughout the 1920s and into World War II. In 1925, the last major expansion of the Shops took place with the building of the erecting and machine shop, the largest railroad-owned erecting shop in the nation. By then, the Altoona Shops constituted the nation's largest concentration of rail shops, employing 16,500 people.
The Altoona Railroad Shops exist as one of the most important railroad developments in America. Begun as one of several repair facilities along the rails, the Shops provided the PRR with a thrusting point from which a trans-Allegheny line became feasible and introduced a series of modernization practices that came to dominate American industry, especially the standardization of parts. One of the oldest continually operating shops in the country, the Altoona Shops remained active and vital into the 1960s. Three buildings remain, including the master mechanics building, which now serves as the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum.

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