In the mid-19th century, Pennsylvania had a major problem. In the race to go west, they were being beaten by New York.
With the new New York Central Railroad, it took only 16 hours to reach Chicago from NYC (It takes 19 hours for the same journey in 2013), whereas it took four days to go from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Something had to be done because Pennsylvania was losing valuable travel and tourism revenue to New York.
The disparity in time was caused by the Allegheny Mountains, a major challenge for train travel across Pennsylvania. Since 1834, Pennsylvania had been using a complex system called the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
Utilizing a combination of canals, horses, stationary steam engines, and rail cars, it became possible to make it from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 4 days instead of the 23+ required by stagecoaches.
However, a mere 20 years later, it became obvious that something else had to be done to speed up the trip. Thus, the Horseshoe curved was conceived.
Carrying trains up the steep banks of the Allegheny Mountains was nearly impossible, so instead, engineers created a series of curves through the mountains the slowly increase the trains’ elevation. The largest and most dramatic of these curves is the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, which was completed in 1854.
Over the course of the next 160 years, the curve has been crossed by thousands of trains and even eight U.S. Presidents!
A tourist attraction from almost day one, the first viewing area was constructed in 1879. Today, thousands of people each year come to see the trains traverse this engineering marvel.
While trains have always fascinated me, and I really enjoy riding them, I’ve never been a huge train buff. That being said, I found the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona to be quite fascinating.
After either taking the free but infrequent funicular to the top of the hill or climbing the 194 steps, visitors are greeted by a large open area from which to view the train. Large trees and benches dot the landscape, while a large locomotive sits in one corner of the viewing area.
There are also several signs around the area which give you more information on the history of the curve and the types of trains that come through.
While it’s usually possible to see and hear trains coming from the distance, each train is announced by a scanner that broadcasts the movements of the trains through the viewing area. While a fence keeps you from getting too close to the trains, visitors are allowed to stand within about 30 feet of the passing trains.
At its height during World War II, as many as 250 trains would pass through the Horseshoe Curve each day. So important was the Horseshoe Curve to the American war effort that it was a target of Nazi saboteurs who landed in the US in 1942.
Today, however, the number is closer to 50, with all but two being freight trains. The best time to visit if you want to see several trains in a short period of time is the early afternoon. A sheet of paper with the approximate time of each train and Horseshoe Curve hours of operation is available in the gift shop.
Horseshoe Curve train rides are not available from either the Railroaders Memorial Museum or Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark.
For anyone that has even a mild interest in history or trains, Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve is a fascinating place to visit when traveling in Blair County, Pennsylvania.
Fascinated by railroads? Check out the nearby Railroaders Memorial Museum or Allegheny Portage Railroad. Looking for more things to do in Altoona, PA? Also nearby is the Baker Mansion and DelGrosso’s Amusement Park.