Horseshoe Curve, 10 minutes outside Altoona, Pennsylvania, is a world-famous National Historic Landmark — so the signs say. It’s not on the beaten track.
When my family used to visit their families in the Altoona/Bellwood area, sometimes we’d make a side trip to Horseshoe Curve. I still have a souvenir calendar from way back when. Note that it was not “World Famous Horseshoe Curve,” but plain old Horseshoe Curve.
I don’t think we paid admission. My dad wouldn’t have paid, or would have paid only a nominal fee, for something as nonessential as a trip to Horseshoe Curve. I remember only that at some point, I’m not sure when, he commented how “overgrown” it’d become, which made it hard to see much.
In September 1988, after I’d been absent for awhile from Pennsylvania, my aunt took me to see it again. I think the only way to get up then was steps, difficult for her because she’d lost a kneecap to a car accident. You can see why my dad said you couldn’t see much for the trees and brush.
In the early 1990s, a visitor center/museum was built, along with a funicular to get up to the top for those who can’t or don’t want to handle the steps. Now there’s an admission charge to see the Curve, more if you want to go into the visitor center/museum. You can go up to the Curve only during the posted season and hours. It’s pricey for a family, and there’s no break for Blair County residents.
I’ve seen Horseshoe Curve as a passenger on Amtrak 42 (eastbound) and 43 (westbound), the Pennsylvanian. On this visit I didn’t, however. A freight train accident with a vehicle ahead of the Capitol Limited had made me miss the connection with the eastbound Pennsylvanian, so I’d had to take Greyhound from Pittsburgh to Altoona. On the way back, the Curve is dark when the Pennsylvanian passes at around 5:30 p.m.
The public can’t access Horseshoe Curve during the colder months. When we made a quick stop the day after Christmas, we just looked up. I’ll have to make a trip sometime in late spring, summer, or early fall for a real visit.
Countless trains have passed downhill toward Altoona and points east since Horseshoe Curve was finished in 1854, engineered by J. Edgar Thompson.
Kittanning Run passes under Horseshoe Curve from the north. It’s too bad there’s not a more bucolic fence to protect the public from falling in.
Of course you want to hear that water flowing. The odd thing is . . . I don’t recall anything but the reservoir. You’d think I’d remember hearing or seeing rushing water, but I don’t.
Pushmi-pullyu pairs of black-and-white Norfolk Southern helper engines go back and forth on Horseshoe Curve all day. They’re needed going uphill to pull/push and going downhill to help control speed/brake. You don’t want a long, heavy, fully loaded train speeding downhill around a curve. These two are headed back up the mountain.
It’s Pennsylvania, so you will see coal trains. You can imagine how much they weigh. This one is going downhill east toward Altoona in Logan Valley.
If you watch the Virtual Railfan webcam, you may see “heritage units.” I’m not sure that’s what this engine is but it’s different from the usual Norfolk Southern engines and has a vintage air.
One day the Pennsylvanian was hauling this Ohio Central Sugar Creek car. It may be the vintage car that you’ll often see sitting at the Pittsburgh station.
Horseshoe Curve is gorgeous in autumn. Here the Pennsylvanian is headed down (eastbound) to Altoona, on time. The Pennsylvanian usually has six cars, but you may see seven around busy holidays like Thanksgiving. This train, between Pittsburgh and New York, partially fills the gap left by the elimination of the Broadway Limited, which ran between Chicago and New York. It’s partly funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and is popular with Amish and Mennonite travelers.
The Altoona Reservoir.
Horseshoe Curve specs
- Curve length: 2,375 feet
- Degree of curvature: 9 degrees; 25 minutes
- Central angle: 220 degrees
- Elevation of lower (east) end: 1,594 feet
- Elevation of upper (west) end: 1,716 feet
- Total elevation climb: 122 feet
- Grade: 1.8 percent (1.8 foot rise per 100 feet)