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Mountainside Mecca in the Railroad City

What is the secret drive of visitors to Railroad City in Altoona, Pennsylvania?  Trains!  That's why when people come to the Allegheny Mountains region of Pennsylvania, the local population hope that visitors will walk away with at least some understanding (even if the same passion isn't there) of being a Foamer!

"Foamer?" one may ask, "What in the world is a Foamer?"  The term is well known by those who love to watch trains and to those who refer to someone that places him or herself near the active Norfolk Southern mainline.  Foamers carry multiple cameras and are armed with diesel locomotive number books - an official guide to quickly cross-referenced the numbers on locomotive that pass by.  Often a Foamer will also have some sort of personal communication device, such as a cell phone, two-way radio or something in order to call those whom he or she knows that are east or west on the mainline waiting to give a heads up regarding what is on the way.  The fun doesn't stop once the train goes by either!  Later, a real Foamer will often login to a website (like the local Yahoo! group Central_PA_Railfan) and exchange additional information about what he or she saw, heard, read, captured…whatever!

Foamers have very special locations at which they align themselves with the mainline in order to have a better position to capture the iron horses, owned by what is now Norfolk Southern (NS).  The trains conquer the elevations of the Allegheny Mountains, hauling important freight and materials, as has been done for over 150 years in western Pennsylvania.  One of the most precious of these locations, for local Foamers, as well as for those traversing the mountains themselves is the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark, which is perched high above the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania - the Railroad City.

Horseshoe Curve opened in February 1854.  Built by the Pennsylvania Railroading Company (known as the PPR), it was officially opened as the mountain pass towards Pittsburgh.  Since then, people have been fascinated by watching trains move around the 2,375-foot graded curvature (with a central angle of 200 degrees) that begins at 1594 feet above sea level and straightens out at 1716 feet above sea level.  In the mid-1800's, the construction of the Curve, (which was built to bridge three mountainsides), was commissioned by the PRR and led by designer and engineer J. Edgar Thompson.  He envisioned the path the tracks would take over the almost-impossible landscape that was impeding westward expansion of railroad operations from Altoona.  Ongoing fascination of the site is contributed to the fact that the Curve is considered to be an engineering marvel.  It was built by 450, mostly Irish immigrants, entirely by hand for 25-cents per day.  With only the help of picks, shovels, horses, mules and drags, they worked long twelve-hour days!

Since 1854, railroad companies including the PRR, the Penn Central, Conrail, AMTRAK and NS have allowed train-watchers and passengers to marvel at the scale and beauty of the landmark.  Because the Horseshoe Curve is still open for business  as a part of the active mainline, it has had many years for people to discover that it is a premier location for active, trackside train watching.

In 1862, a PRR railroad guide book published for passengers said that the Curve was "the grandest view on the whole route.  A vast extent of landscape is spread out before the eye…This horseshoe bend is one of the greatest engineering triumphs of the age."  Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, have witnessed the Horseshoe Curve's beauty as rail passengers or as platform speakers.

In 1932, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paved the access road, which made it easier for visitors to get to Horse Shoe Curve. It began as an Indian trail, which is now known as Kittaning Point Road continuing to the Horseshoe Curve from the valley below.  This allowed for easier viewing for those who wanted to watch trains or enjoy the landscape of the elevation.  In 1940 the railroad gave the City of Altoona a permit to use part of the adjacent land near the Curve.  This  accommodated visitors who came to watch trains at the site, thereby solidifying its importance to the forefathers of foaming.  

During WWII, the Horseshoe Curve served as a major transportation route of goods that were being used to support the war.  Even the German Nazis recognized that the Horseshoe Curve was of importance.  On the night of June 13, 1942, a Nazi submarine landed four saboteurs at Amagansett, Long Island, New York and four more landed in Jacksonville, Florida with a combined $170,000 and a large supply of explosives for two years of saboteur activities that would destroy twelve key industrial and transportation landmarks.  One of those listed was the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

It's no wonder that people who have wanted to watch trains, follow industrial heritage, appreciate American history, or simply enjoy breathtaking views of western Pennsylvania's mountains, have chosen to use the Horseshoe Curve as just the right spot for these activities!

By Dana L. Shoemaker

Dana L. Shoemaker is a Pennsylvania native, who graduated in 1997 from Penn State University with a degree in International Communications, and has served as a journalist, correspondent, columnist and freelance writer since 1998. Shoemaker has written for a variety of audiences on the subjects of heritage tourism, community and economic development, regional tourism development, and domestic and global travel.

Altoona tourism & sightseeing
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