You are here

Up and Down and 'Round and 'Round and Back Again

Spring 2010
Aerial view of the Horseshoe Curve
United States Geological Survey
The Horseshoe Curve allowed for easier and quicker travel times across the state in the era of the railroads.

A flight from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh lasts about forty-five minutes. By car it’s around a five hour drive, depending on traffic and rest stops. Taking an Amtrak Train is about seven hours in air-conditioned and heated train cars. Reclining seats, reading lights, and snack cars are among the amenities. Travelers today have it easy—with all the different modes of travel for getting between the two largest Pennsylvania cites, it’s hard to imagine that the trip measured in weeks and days, not hours or minutes, or that making the trek by a combination of wagons, horses, and canal boats. That is what travelers had to endure before the Horseshoe Curve, an engineering marvel, opened in 1854.

Back in the 1800s, Pittsburgh was the gateway to the American West. But there was a big obstacle standing between Philadelphia and the Gateway City—the Appalachian Mountain Range. They are referred to as the Eastern continental divide for a reason: they sweep from Newfoundland to Alabama and form one massive mountainous barrier whose highest peak, Mount Mitchell (North Carolina), stands 6,684 feet above sea level.

A trip across the state was at first a months’ journey on horseback, and then later a 20 day trip by slow freight wagon through old Native American trails in the mountains, but the time was cut to four and a half days in 1834 with the opening of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works. The Main Line system was one of canals (where they were feasible in the rugged landscape) and then a railroad and inclined plane system to get over the mountains, called the Allegheny-Portage Railroad (APRR). Construction of the system took about eight years and was completed on March 18, 1834.

The Horseshoe Curve came into existence because of a race for Pittsburgh’s rich commerce; by 1842, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had reached 178 miles west to Cumberland, MD (about as far west as Altoona), and was aiming for the Gateway City. Philadelphia had to find a faster, easier, cheaper way to transport goods and passengers to and from Pittsburgh in order to keep their business relations with the city, and they had to do it before the B&O Railroad got there. The Main Line and APRR just wasn’t doing the job fast enough. A bill authorizing the construction of a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh railroad was quickly signed into law by Governor Francis R. Shunk on April 13, 1846, and the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was born.

Portrait of John Edgar Thomson
Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, 1920
PRR Chief Engineer John Edgar Thomson.

Construction got underway in 1847 under the direction of Chief Engineer John Edgar Thomson. He and other engineers poured over surveys of Pennsylvania to find the best alignment for an all-rail route, and decided upon the one going straight through the middle of Pennsylvania, following the Juniata River Valley. When the rail came in site of the Allegheny Mountains, it veered south towards what was then little more than a swampy field—soon to be the city of Altoona. The line was opened in mid-September of 1850, and the connection to the APRR was made on October 1. At this point, the PRR had a continuous track from Lancaster to Duncansville, about 173 miles. The western segment was slower-going than the eastern, but by December 10, 1852 the Pittsburgh to Johnstown line was completed.

There was still, however, the arduous, inclined plane system of the APRR in effect to cross the mountains. Chief Engineer Thomson knew that the only way fix this problem was to eliminate it altogether. The B&O and Erie (New York) Railroads were close to completing their own lines, so he decided to bypass the APRR and join the eastern segment of the PRR with its western segment, creating a seamless all-rail route. There was one main problem to which Thomson had to find a solution to connect the two rail segments: how to get the trains to climb the rock wall up to the tunnel that was cut 150feet below the top of the 1,261ft high mountain. The tunnel was completed without much trouble, but the mountain was very steep, making for a dangerous climb for trains; they had to gain several feet of altitude very quickly in order to reach the summit. With the APRR’s inclined plane system, four or five engine crews per train were required to do battle with the mountain. Helpers, or pushers, were needed to hoist trains over the mountains. Safety breaks prevented some accidents, but, unfortunately, not all. With this in mind, Thomson decided that the mountain was far too steep to climb in the conventional straight-up way.

Train tracks cut through rock at the Horseshoe Curve
James Stuby
The Railroad needed to cut through the mountain to lay track, in this case an outcrop of the Devonian Catskill Formation.

Thomson’s ingenious concept was to steadily raise the grade of the track (how high the train climbs in altitude per one hundred feet of forward motion) instead of forcing the trains to scale the steep mountains in huge leaps. He built a long train track, one that doubled back in a loop to gain altitude more gently as the train ascended. Instead of the dangerous 8 to 10 percent grade (eight to ten feet of rise per 100 feet) of the APRR’s inclined planes, Thomson engineered his long track to have a 1.8 percent grade. As a result, the tracks ran along the north side of the valley, then turned to the left and crossed a high fill (man-made embankment) to Kittanning Point, where a rock wall was shaved away for the arc that is the center of Horseshoe Curve. In its final form, the curve was 1, 800 feet across and a half-mile long, and the west side was 122 feet higher than the east side. One of Thomson’s aides later recalled that it took more than a dozen attempts to get the right alignment. Thomson certainly could have made it easier on himself by starting the incline of the track some 70 miles east of Lewistown, eliminating the need for a looping track. Thomson was a clever economist, though: with the Curve, he would only need a helper locomotive for a relatively short 12-mile climb, saving time and money.

The Horseshoe Curve represents the imagination, perseverance, and vision on the part of the builders and engineers, and it proved that the best solution is often the simplest. In fact, this curving, steadily climbing track and its original alignment has never been improved upon, underscoring its longevity. It opened on February 15, 1854, reducing travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to 15 hours, and the fare for a one-way ticket was reduced from $9.50 to an enticing $8.00. With the bottleneck uncorked, westward settlement and the development of Pennsylvania’s interior could accelerate. The state-owned APRR, unable to compete with the PRR’s speed and convenience, was soon sold to the owner of the PRR, which became Thomson himself in 1854. He siphoned off its parts and territory to better his own railroad. With the completion of Thomson’s railroad, the PRR could now ferry passengers across the state without having to change trains, doubling its popularity.

Panorama view of the Horseshoe Curve
A.P. McDowell / Library of Congress
This two part picture illustrates the entire sweep of the Horseshoe Curve.

The opening of the Curve jumpstarted Altoona’s development; it started as the site for the railroad’s principal locomotive and car shops, but soon Altoona not only repaired but built and tested engines and cars, ultimately boosting employment in the range 14,000 to 18,000 workers. Thousands of people swarmed to the railroad towns for work, and they certainly found it. Andrew Carnegie himself, before he made his fortune and his name, worked for PRR management before he was transferred to Pittsburgh to assume the post of superintendent of the Western Division. He later left the railroad to establish his iron and steel empire.

In 1865, when the Horseshoe Curve was becoming a popular tourist attraction, Kittanning Point was built as a telegraph and sightseeing station (later rebuilt in 1892). The scenery around Horseshoe Curve changed as well; the original outlying area was all pastures, but a large reservoir was built right in the middle of the Curve to serve as part of Altoona’s water supply. In 1893, the “Pennsy,” or so the PRR was nicknamed, honored the Horseshoe Curve by building a topographical model of it for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, an event that itself drew many tourists aboard trains that rounded the Curve en route to the fair. Trains were so popular at this time that the factories and mills were outstripping the railroads’ ability to handle the cargo. More trains needed to be run, so the Horseshoe Curve was made a double track rail in 1898, followed by a third track in 1899, and a fourth in 1900. This was a dangerous operation because the last two extra tracks were built on the outside of the curve, where workers had to blast away more rock face to make room while trains continued to barrel through the work site at 35mph. When traffic was getting exponentially heavier in the 1890s, the PRR utilized the long-abandoned Muleshoe Curve, which had been made by the former APRR to mimic the Horseshoe Curve a few hundred feet south of the original. It was refurbished and made to relieve the pressure on the Horseshoe Curve, and with its completion, there were then three tunnels and two routes to get up (and down) the east face of the Allegheny Mountain.

A Man Watches a Train going through the Horseshoe Curve
PA Dept. of Environmental Protection
Like many in his day this man clearly thought trains coming through the Horseshoe Curve were worth watching.

In the 1900s, the PRR was the leader of America’s railroads, all thanks to the Horseshoe Curve. It was the largest, wealthiest, and single most powerful railroad in the United States. It  handled 10% of all freight traffic in America, and 20% of all passenger traffic. The “Pennsy” continuously promoted the Horseshoe Curve, distributing brochures everywhere, even in foreign countries, and requiring the conductors of the trains to announce the Horseshoe Curve to daytime passengers (which is still done today). Around 1930, the Pennsy claimed that its trains carried more freight over the mountain in one day than the old Allegheny Portage Railroad did in an entire year.

No Golden Age, however, lasts forever. By the late 1930s, the private automobile had taken over most local travel and few trains stopped at Kittanning Point station. Roads for automobiles were being paved all over the nation. A small stone building, termed a guest lodge, was built at the base of the Curve in 1940, but eventually became a gift shop. While this building was going up, another was coming down: Kittanning Point station was demolished. Although the Horseshoe Curve was still a popular tourist attraction, people were coming to see it in their own cars, not as travelers aboard the Pennsy’s passenger trains. With a paved road straight to it, the Curve and its park became a natural destination for a day’s outing.

Two incidents served to thrust the Curve into national prominence during this time, and it is debatable as to which one gave the Curve more exposure. On the night of June 13, 1942, four highly trained Nazis sneaked ashore from a submarine onto Long Island, and a few nights later, four more arrived in Florida. Within two weeks, the FBI caught them all, along with large amounts of explosives and more than $100,000 in cash. Among their targets were aircraft and aluminum plants and key railroad installations such as bridges, Penn Station in New York, and the Horseshoe Curve. With its military value now clear, the Curve was fenced off and placed under 24-hour guard. Within two years, the story was fictionalized in a youth novel, The Long Trains Roll by Pennsylvania’s own Stephen W. Meader. Despite place-name changes, it was clearly set in the vicinity of the Horseshoe Curve. When the danger had passed, the park area was reopened to the public in the spring of 1946.

Further throwing Horseshoe Curve into the spotlight, the Sylvania Electric Company took a series of spectacular night photos for publicity purposes in the early 1950s. To honor the Curve’s centennial in 1954, Sylvania and the PRR went through weeks of elaborate preparations to set up a system of 6,000 flash bulbs, 31 miles of wiring, and several mounted cameras. The resulting photo appeared not only in newspapers and on the cover of the 1954 PRR annual report, but also in LIFE magazine. By that time, some 25,500 freight trains and 2 million passengers a year traveled around the Curve, according to the PRR. Thousands of people from all over the world were visiting the Curve every year.

A Freight Train Chugs Through the Horseshoe Curve
H.C. White / Library of Congress
A 60-car freight train chugs its way through the Horseshoe Curve.

This popularity was temporary, though. By the late 1950s, some of the luster of the Curve was beginning to fade. In 1956, the Altoona Tribune noted that the Horseshoe Curve was no longer listed among the seven modern civil wonders of the world, although the Panama Canal, Empire State Building, and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were still on the list. With the onset of the more efficient diesel engines, steam engines were being phased out of the PRR, meaning layoffs for the railroad unions and hard workers of railroad towns. Because of this, when one of the old steam engines was put on display in the summer of 1957, the ceremony was interrupted by picketers, protesting that the actions of the PRR were unnecessarily cruel. By December, steam operations were shut down—the Horseshoe Curve would never be the same again.

On May 10, 1967, the National Park Service designated the Horseshoe Curve a National Historic Landmark, but the public areas of the Curve by this time had begun to suffer from neglect. Various efforts were mounted to maintain and improve the property, but no person, group, agency or company seemed to want take full responsibility. The railroad no longer cared for a public that didn’t ride its trains, and the city was reluctant to spend money on railroad property. Economic shifts, combined with massive federal and state taxpayer-funded subsidies to the competing highway and aviation modes, left many railroads on the ropes. Penn Central Railroad (the PRR combined with its old rival, New York Central) went bankrupt in 1970, and with the federal transportation policy favoring planes and automobiles, the passenger-train was nearly extinct. To prevent the disappearance of a means of “civilized and environmentally sound” transportation, Congress created the semi-governmental nationwide passenger-train corporation, Amtrak, on May 1, 1971. This saved the passenger-train, but cut the number of passenger runs from the 60 or more a day that had been routine in the 1920s and 30s to only 13. It was only four by 1972.

By 1976, the federal government revamped the freight train system as well by merging all of the failing northeastern railroads into a new government-owned freight line, Conrail. This brought more traffic to the Curve, but in order to support the freight line, the passenger-trains were cut even further. There were just two daily runs—one each way—from New York to Chicago. There had never been so little passenger service on the Horseshoe Curve, not even when it opened in 1854. The situation improved, however, in 1980 when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took advantage of Amtrak’s State-partnership program to add a daylight Philadelphia-Pittsburgh run, the Pennsylvanian. It was extended to New York as well in 1983, and eventually became the most successful state-supported passenger service in the nation. Conrail did some economizing as the 80s began, using less parallel tracks. Many multi-tracks were pulled up, including one of the Curve’s four tracks (the second from the center). Several more improvements were made on the Curve and other tracks, including the use of welded rails that allowing for expansion and contraction.

A modern freight train speeds through the Curve
James G. Howes
Freight trains still use the Curve as the easiest way to get to Pittsburgh from the East and to return from there.

In June 1987, the Horseshoe Curve regained some of its regard. The National Park Service rangers began riding the Pennsylvanian between Altoona and Johnstown several days a week during the summer to give interpretive talks about the history and geography of the area and its transportation systems, past and present. The program became so popular that people rode on those days just to hear the narration, and it has been repeated in following seasons. Much work was done in the late 1980s and early 90s to improve the visitor center for the Curve, and the park and picnic area surrounding it. The Altoona Railroads Memorial Museum was also enhanced and a Funicular, an enclosed cart on an incline plane, was constructed to take visitors to the front of the train tracks from the visitors’ center. Most of these improvements were completed in 1922, helping the Horseshoe Curve to reclaim its place as not only a sturdy landmark of transportation engineering, but also a genuinely historic site. The number of visitors grew from 188,745 to 267,517 in less than two years, and has had a great economic impact on the region, most especially Altoona.

Dan Cupper, author of Horseshoe Heritage: The Story of a Great Railroad Landmark (1993), wrote of the Curve, “It has seen trains carrying presidents and hoboes, royalty and prisoners or war. Nazi spies schemed to blow it up (…) Generations of train conductors have announced it to generations of passengers who still crowd the coach windows to get a good view.” This is most certainly true. Horseshoe Curve is famous for many things, far beyond its original status as an engineering marvel. People from the highest stations of society have ridden the Curve, such as Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII of Great Britain) in 1860, and many presidents of the United States including Andrew Johnson, the first to visit Altoona in 1866. But most important of all its passengers were just every day people, traveling west to make a life for themselves. The local affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates even named itself after the Curve in June 1998.

Before electricity and automobiles, jetliners and space travel, the Horseshoe Curve was considered an engineering wonder. Many highways and railroad tracks have taken up the curving notion since, but none is more widely known as the one in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Located just southeast of the city, the Curve has a double history: one that is local, pertaining to Blair County, Altoona, and the sprawling business the railroad helped bring about in the area, but also one on a national and state level, one of the former Pennsylvania Railroad—one of the world’s most successful transportation dynasties. The Horseshoe Curve remains today a recognizable landmark across the nation, and Pennsylvanians still feel great pride in their railroading history.