Altoona is located in Central Pennsylvania 2 hours east of Pittsburgh and 45 minutes west of State College. I decided to visit as part of a trip to visit my friend Max who is a freshman at Penn State. Having already been to State College for a football game, I wanted to explore more of the region. Altoona is home to the closest National Park Service site to State College. As a lover of National Park Service sites, I decided to add it to my trip.
February 5, 2023: Railroad City USA
After a fun night out in State College, I checked out of my Airbnb at 8am and hit the road. I stopped for breakfast at Sheetz, a local convenience store chain that locals swear is better than Wawa.
The ride to Altoona took me along Interstate 99 which wound its way through the mountains past industrial towns. Once on the outskirts of Altoona, I veered west into the Allegheny Mountains. As I crested the top, the ground was covered in snow! At 9:00, I walked into the visitor center for the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.
This National Park Service site protects and commemorates the most ridiculous transit project in US history: the Allegheny Portage Railroad. In the 1830´s transporting goods inland from the Atlantic was very difficult. New York had just built the Erie Canal and Pennsylvania wanted in on the trade. At the time, the only way to cross Pennsylvania was by foot, which took 25 days.
The most logical solution would be to build another canal. However, the mountains made this solution impossible. The mountains were also too steep for rail engines. The authorities considered a few solutions including building a 4-mile rail tunnel (the longest tunnel of any kind on earth at the time was 1/4 mile).
They eventually settled on the idea of a portage railroad: two canals would approach the mountains from the east and west. To cross the mountains, the cargo boats would then be loaded onto rails. For the flatter sections, mules would pull the boats up the mountain. For 11 extra steep sections, the cargo would be hooked by rope to a lift station (a building containing a giant engine) which would hoist the cargo up.
The idea of a portage railroad sounds ridiculous, and the authorities agreed. They purposefully wanted an idea crazy enough to be newsworthy and would convince people to ride it over taking the Erie Canal.
The portage railway reduced travel times across Pennsylvania from 25 days to 5. The actual portage railroad itself took just a few hours. Several technological inventions came out of the portage railroad including the iron wire rope and the first rail tunnel in the Americas.
Despite being an engineering marvel, but the portage railway operated for just 19 years. By the 1850´s steam locomotive engines were powerful enough to power a train over the mountains. Luckily for the region, the first locomotive track to cross the mountains was just a few miles away. It´s signature feature, the Horseshoe Curve, is also considered to be an engineering marvel and to this day attracts rail tourists from around the world. Unfortunately, the Curve was closed to visitors for the winter.
To learn about the next chapter of Altoona´s story, I had to drive into the town itself to the Railroaders Memorial Museum. Along the way, I passed by the Sheetz headquarters and the very first gas station in the United States.
Due to its location in the center of the state and next to the first track across the mountains, Altoona became the natural headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was also here in Altoona where the cars were built and repaired. The Pennsylvania Railroad grew to be the largest railroad in the entire United States, making Altoona an incredibly influential town.
Altoona had over 60,000 residents at its peak of which 17,000 worked directly for the railroad. It had a baseball stadium that could seat over 30,000, there was (and still is) a symphony orchestra, and multiple ethnic neighborhoods.
One of the most impressive and influential projects of the Pennsylvania Railroad was the construction of a rail line underneath the Hudson River to New York City. This rail line terminated in the grandest train station ever built: Pennsylvania Station (yes, it is named for the railroad). Sadly, the original Penn Station was torn down to create Madison Square Garden and its replacement is nowhere as spectacular.
After World War II, the proliferation of diesel engine trains and an overall decline in passenger rail in the US spelled Altoona´s demise. Today, the town is a shell of its former self. The once grand downtown is vacant.
The only remnant of its former greatness is the enormous cathedral looming on a hill over the town.
I ate lunch (more technically brunch) at Tom & Joe´s Diner which opened in 1935 when Altoona was still a relevant place. This classic diner was packed and the only place in the city with people. I ordered the “breakfast mess”, eggs scrambled with hashbrowns and veggies. Delicious and there were some real characters there!
On the way out of town, I stopped at the Boyer chocolate factory. Boyer is best known for Mallo Cup, essentially a Reese´s Peanut Butter Cup but with a marshmallow center.
With that, I headed back to State College to fly back to New York City.
The history of Altoona and the surrounding areas is fascinating. The various museums do a fantastic job at explaining this history. However, the modern town of Altoona is nothing. If you like history and have a good imagination, Altoona is an amazing place to visit. If not, then you will be disappointed.
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