Trains and lead in Altoona

ALTOONA – Listen quietly, what do you hear? A chug, chug, chug in the distance? Maybe a whistle blowing? Here it comes. The kids run to the fence, the adults shade the sun from their eyes.

Closer it comes, rounding the bend and roaring toward the curve. There it is – the train engine and the many railcars behind it. A freight train has just entered the tracks of the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Blair County.

The Horseshoe Curve is an engineering feat of three rail tracks traversing the side of Kittaning Mountain at the base of the Allegheny Mountains, rounding the mountains in the shape of a huge horseshoe. The site now serves as a tourist attraction.

Opened in 1854, the curve stretches 2,375 feet and is between an elevation of 1,595 and 1,716 feet. For the tourist, this elevation means a short funicular ride or a climb up 194 stairs to the tracks.

At the top, meander awhile in a large grassy area with shade trees and picnic tables. Why meander? Because on any given day between April and November, you can sit, picnic, relax and listen – 40 to 50 freight trains and two passenger trains pass by in a 24-hour period.

Young and old alike are mesmerized as train sounds permeate the air. Then, from either the northeast or southeast, the trains enter the curve, round it and exit on the way to their destination.

From two-car trains to ones the whole length of the curve, the rail cars carry coal, oil, grain, merchandise, cars, mail, appliances and passengers, among other cargo. Some trains travel from Los Angeles to Jersey City or from Bethlehem, Pa., to Chicago.

Construction of the curve portion of the railroad allowed travel across the state to decrease in time from 20 days to about 15 hours. The dangerous and demanding work was done entirely by hand by 450 workers, many from Ireland.

Also at the curve is an interpretive visitors center. You can watch a short history video, see topographical maps and read about the runaway train in 1925.

Altoona Railroaders

Memorial Museum

Located six miles from Horseshoe Curve, Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum on Ninth Avenue once was the home of the Pennsylvania Railroad complex.

At one time, 122 buildings on 218 acres assembled the employees who designed, maintained, moved and built railroad cars. There were buildings for the foundries and for designing, assembling, painting, lighting, plumbing, maintenance and other departments.

The former master mechanics building now contains the three-story museum of interactive displays.

The first floor features a theatre showing several documentary films including “Why in the World Altoona.”

The second floor displays vignettes of A City of Railroaders, from the city to the neighborhoods and from the home to the hangouts, such as Kelly’s Bar. At the top of the stairs, a mock newspaper stand complete with virtual newsboy displays magazines, candy bars and newspapers.

Learn about the railroaders’ church life and their ethnic neighborhoods, including Dutch Hill and Little Italy. Baseball and music events became their social activities.

On the other side of the second floor, placards list the motive, maintenance and transportation divisions of the railroad. Explore the mock shops where the trains went from design to operation.

The third floor’s interactive sections include How to Run a Railroad (with model trains) and Travel (luxurious dining cars and infamous hobos).

Have a railroader ancestor? Check out the Railroaders as American Heroes database of Pennsylvania Railroad employees. The database now is online at as the Railroaders Callboard.

New to the museum complex is the Harry Bennett Memorial Roundhouse. The building – named in honor of the first foreman of the nearby Juniata Locomotive Shops – features a working, 105-foot turntable and indoor and outdoor storage bays to showcase rolling stock.

At any time, you might see among many items the K-4 steam locomotive, a cabin car, a Pennsylvania Railroad railway post office car or a crossing shanty. The shanty was a building at busy grade crossings manned by a watchman. Automatic flashers at grade crossings later replaced watchmen.

Fort Roberdeau

Imagine Gen. George Washington fighting the Revolutionary War without bullets. When lead for bullets became scarce, what happened? Reports of lead deposits on the Pennsylvania frontier led Congressman Daniel Roberdeau to start a mining operation in the lead ore deposit-rich rural Sinking Valley, 8 miles northeast of Altoona.

The lead ore rocks were excavated from the mine, broken into small pieces and then heated in a blast furnace so the ore melted out and ran into a trough. It then was put into ball-shaped molds, sized according to the needed gun barrel size.

Fort Roberdeau was built in 1778 to protect the mining and smelting operation and the miners, settlers and soldiers who resided nearby.

In a 1778 letter from Roberdeau to Washington, found in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, the congressman writes:

“To prevent the evacuation of the frontier of Bedford County and for the general defence (sic) against Indian incursions, I have built with logs at the mine in Sinking Spring Valley at the foot of (unreadable name) Mountain, a fort, cabin fashion, 50 yards square with a bastion at each corner. The fort consists of 48 cabins about 12 feet square exclusive of the bastions.”

Used only as a mining operation for two years (1778-1780), the lead mine fort’s stockade and cabins were rebuilt in 1976 after falling in a state of disrepair since the Revolutionary War.

Now, the 230-acre park features guided tours with narration by authentically dressed volunteers. See the blacksmith’s shop, the officers’ quarters and the supply room cabin.

Nature trails surround the area. Educational programs, summer concerts and special events occur during the summer.

FACT: Fort Roberdeau was built with its stockade logs positioned horizontally instead of vertically because limestone rock was too close to the suface to allow for the digging of fence posts.