Railroad Heritage at Altoona: Once the Hub of the Mighty Pennsylvania Railroad

I love trains. And believe me, there's no better place to enjoy railroad history than Altoona, a city in south-central Pennsylvania with a rich railroad heritage.

My husband and I live just a few miles from Altoona. Around here, Altoona is known as “Railroad City” because it once was the hub of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), in its heyday one of the world's largest railroads.

One of the best times to visit Altoona is during Railfest, held in early October. Much of the festival revolves around the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, housed in the former PRR's Master Mechanics Building.

If you want a true flavor of what it was like to live in a city where railroad was king, you can't beat this museum. Three floors of fascinating exhibits depict the history of this railroad town.

Established in 1849 as a locomotive service center, Altoona quickly became a bustling rail town. At one point in the 1930s and '40s, 17,000 people here worked for the PRR, and from 1934 to 1942, the railroad shops turned out 23,000 freight cars and cabooses.

About 5 miles outside Altoona is the Horseshoe Curve, an engineering marvel that's now a National Historic Landmark. Opened in 1854, the 220-degree, 1/2-mile-long Curve conquered the Allegheny Mountains, revolutionizing westward rail travel.

We rode an incline tram up to a park where you get a great view of the Curve. We ate lunch there and watched for trains; more than 50 round the Curve daily, so we weren't disappointed. The only thing between you and the trains is a fence–pretty exciting to watch!

Another highlight of Railfest is the two 1950s PRR diesel locomotives. Restored right down to their original Tuscan-red paint scheme, the locomotives take passengers on a train ride around the Curve.

There's not enough room to mention all the great things this celebration offers. Just take my word for it–railroad aficionados and novices alike will enjoy this thrilling ride through Altoona's proud railroad past.

Before You Visit

Altoona is on I-99/U.S. Highway 220 in western Pennsylvania, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Railfest is held on the first full weekend in October (that's October 5-6 in 2002). Admission fees vary according to what you want to see and do; for details about the festival, museum and Horseshoe Curve, which is closed January through March call 1-814-946-0834.

More to See

The East Broad Top Railroad, North America's most authentic narrow-gauge railroad and a National Historic Landmark, is roughly 55 miles southeast of Altoona in Rockhill Furnace. From June through October, the railroad offers 50-minute scenic excursions at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The fare is $9 for adults and $6 for children ages 2-11. For details call 1-814-447-3011.

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed your article. One question, do you know if there will be a railfest in 2014? I called the museum during off season and as of 6/4/14 have not received a return call. Let me know. Thanks

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