Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve: A Must-See for Train Lovers

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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.

Visitors to the Horseshoe Curve watch the trains go by in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Visitors to the Horseshoe Curve watch the trains go by.

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!

Visiting the Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania
Dozens of trains pass through the Horseshoe Curve each day.

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.

Funicular at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania
The funicular travels to the top of the Horseshoe Curve viewing area.

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.

Visiting the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
A freight train travels through the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

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.


Horseshoe Curve

Hours: Monday-Saturday: 9am-6pm
Sundays: 11am-6pm
Open April-October

Cost: $8
$11 combined admission with nearby Railroaders Memorial Museum

Website: RailroadCity.com

Address: 2400 Veterans Memorial Highway
Altoona, PA 16601

 

See map below for other area attractions.



More nearby places worth exploring

Find more things to do in the Alleghenies Region

10 thoughts on “Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve: A Must-See for Train Lovers”

  1. My Dad had a spectacular framed photo print of the Horseshoe Curve on its centennial in 1954. On that day (July 4, I think) they had two trains going in each direction (i.e., four trains on the two sets of tracks in each direction) and a sky full of fireworks.

    I remember fondly the days of steam engines with all their power, steam and smoke. I remember them as a young boy, but by the time I was 10 (1960), steam engines in actual use had pretty much disappeared. What a place these iron horses held in our history. Now they are gone forever, except in museums, and some still run on small tourist lines.

  2. Last time i remember being there was also the first, and like Mr Hagen, i think it was 1960 and i was 10 years old. I also think i took some b&w photos with my Kodak Brownie camera. Pics are probably gone but the memory remains! What a railroad the Pennsy was! Need to visit the PRR historical sites with grandkids! Thanks for the article.

  3. There is a diesel engine not a steam engine at the Horseshoe Curve. The steam engine was moved over 30 yrs ago.

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