Altoona is home to railroad history and Horseshoe Curve

Pa. city to ring in holidays, celebrate train legacy

Trips: road trips, regional events

December 11, 2003|By Ann Sagi Ward | Ann Sagi Ward,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Railroad fans should make tracks to Altoona this weekend for Santa Claus' arrival by train at a railroading landmark.

In 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad was founded in this city 190 miles northwest of Baltimore when the first railroad was under construction over the Alleghenies.

Altoona is home to the Horseshoe Curve, known to rail buffs around the world. The engineering feat opened in 1854 and revolutionized railroading by getting trains over the Alleghenies.

The two sides of the arc are almost parallel, and both sides of the curve are visible from a track-side observation area that is reached by a funicular ride or by 194 steps.

In its heyday in the early 1900s, 150 trains traveled the curve daily, heading east downhill, west, uphill. That number now is about 50 a day.

A General Motors GP7 diesel locomotive is parked at the site to replace a K4 steam engine that is being restored.

The observation area is a good spot to take in the hilly scenery track side, and train engineers wave as they pass visitors at the observation area.

Displays at a visitors center at the base of the funicular tell the story of the curve's construction, and a store sells railroad souvenirs.

Tomorrow, Moonlight at the Curve is set for 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Trains will travel the curve, Santa will arrive at 7 p.m., carolers will sing, and refreshments will be served. The cost is $3; $2 for children; and free for younger than age 5.

Near the curve are the Allegheny and Gallitzin tunnels, the longest and highest on the former Pennsy railroad. Gallitzin Tunnels Park, a great vantage point for photographs, offers a museum and theater featuring train videos, exhibits and souvenirs. A restored 1942 PRR caboose on the site will be Santa's stop at 6 p.m. tomorrow. Those attending the free event can photograph their children with Santa.

The next stop is the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in the heart of the city. The museum, in the renovated former Pennsylvania Railroad Master Mechanics Building, shows the movie Altoona at Work: An Era of Steam and offers "All Aboard for Kids," a hands-on play area.

Exhibits provide a glimpse at life in the Railroad City through life-size vignettes. One shows the controls of a steam locomotive with the dozens of knobs, levers and handles labeled.

Other interactive displays include a chance to simulate the job of a rail switcher, and a quiz on which rail lines hooked up with Pennsy, including the Baltimore and Ohio.

On Saturday, the museum will hold a holiday event from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. A tree-lighting ceremony is set for the museum's yard at 7 p.m. Santa will appear at 7:30 p.m. and be available for photos in the lobby. The gift shop will be open for holiday shopping, and gift-wrapping will be available. The cost is $3; $2 for children; and free for younger than age 5.

Once a year, hundreds of railroad devotees converge on Altoona for Railfest. This year's event Oct. 4-5 featured excursions along Horseshoe Curve and long-distance rides to and from Harrisburg and an overnight trip to Pittsburgh - all to celebrate the launch of the 150th birthday of the curve.

What to see

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark, six miles west of Altoona, April through October, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to six p.m. Sunday; November and December, closed Monday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Horseshoe Curve is closed January through March. Call: 814-941-7960.

Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, 1300 Ninth Ave. April through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; November and December, closed Monday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call: 814-946-0834 or 888-425-8666.

Gallitzin Tunnels Park, Caboose & Museum: Open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., weather permitting. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Park open year-round, daylight hours. Call: 814-886-8871.

Baker Mansion, one mile west of U.S. 220 via Logan Boulevard. The Greek Revival home of ironmaster Elias Baker is an 1844 mansion with carved oak pieces imported from Belgium, railroad artifacts and information about Abraham Lincoln. Guided tours are offered. Christmas tours are given the first two weekends in December. Call: 814-942-3916.

Wopsononock Tableland, six miles northwest. An area with an elevation of 2,580 feet that provides a view of Altoona and six surrounding counties.

Where to eat

Allegro (3926 Broad Ave., at 40th Street, 814-946-5216): Veal and Italian dishes. Typical meal: $24.

Finelli's Italian Villa (1808 Fourth Ave., 814-943-8510): Traditional pasta dishes. Typical meal: $30.

Peking II (9601 Logan Blvd., 814-942-3322): Traditional Chinese dishes. Typical meal: $10.

Getting there

From Baltimore, take Interstate 70 west to Interstate 76 west, then Interstate 99 north. Or, for a scenic trip, leave the interstate at Breezewood, traveling Route 30 west to Route 26, which turns into Route 36.

For more regional trips, see Page 44.

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