Altoona, a major railroad town, was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1849 as the site for a shop complex. Altoona was incorporated as a borough on February 6, 1854, and as a city under legislation approved on April 3, 1867 and February 8, 1868. The town grew rapidly in the late 19th century, its population approximately 2,000 in 1854, 10,000 in 1870, and 20,000 in 1880.
The Early Years
The demand for locomotives during the Civil War stimulated much of the city’s growth, and by the later years of the war, Altoona was known as a valuable city for the North. It was considered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as a target during the Army of Northern Virginia’s mid-1863 entry in to Pennsylvania, before being repelled at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Also notable is the Union’s War Governors’ Conference, held at Altoona’s Logan House, two days after President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. There, governors gave Lincoln a vote of confidence, and promised their support.
Other notable guests at the Logan House included U.S. senators and generals, seven presidents, and most Pennsylvania governors of that day. Other guests included Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln, circus promoter P. T. Barnum and Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, who in 1901 became Great Britain’s King Edward VII.
Into the 20th Century
Notable is the Horseshoe Curve, a famous curved section of the track owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, now a tourist attraction and National Historic Landmark. The Curve was used to raise trains to a sufficient altitude to cross the Allegheny Ridge to the west, beyond the steel town of Pittsburgh and the rest of the western United States.
Because it was the industrial link to the western US, Horseshoe Curve, just west of Altoona was a primary target of eight Nazi saboteurs who infiltrated the United States in the early years of World War II (1942) by being dropped off by Kriegsmarine U-Boats.
In the early 20th century, the Railroad’s Altoona Works complex employed at its peak some 15,000 people and covered three miles in length, 218 acres of yards and 37 acres of indoor workshop floor space in 122 buildings. The PRR built many of its own locomotives at the Works, some 7,873 in all, the last being constructed in 1946.
Altoona is also one of the dual seats of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown as the location of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Altoona), which was made a cathedral and rechristened from St. John’s Church in 1851.
Altoona Today (v2.0)
Today, Altoona is a major center on the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s Pittsburgh Line. In Altoona, helper engines are added to heavy trains to give them extra power up and over the Horseshoe Curve west of town. The Juniata Heavy Repair Shop Complex, originally built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, is the primary repair and maintenance facility on the Norfolk Southern.
Altoona is served by Amtrak trains daily. On an average day, 60-80 trains pass through Altoona. The historical importance to the railroad industry and the current high level of railroad activity has made Altoona a mecca for rail fans for over 60 years. The Altoona Railroader’s Memorial Museum and the Horseshoe Curve are popular spots for rail fans to take photos of passing trains.
Altoona serves as the corporate home to Sheetz, a rapidly growing convenience store chain the United States.
For more information visit: Blair County Historical Society.