2014 Great Circle Tour travel blog

View of Buccaneer Bay from our section of the campground

Sue and I at the entrance to Horseshoe Curve National Historic Site

Horseshoe Curve

Some of the Horseshoe Curve dimensions

The Curve's tracks from the observation park

Altoona Reservoir enclosed within the Horseshoe

The cars on the funicular passing in the center

Zigzag stairs to the bottom

A train finally passed as we went down the steps

1928 Dodge Brothers sedan

1924 Dodge Brothers sedan

Scenes from the Railroader Memorial Museum

You need to move your hands quickly when coupling cars - one...

People at work in the Museum

Anybody remember what this is?

The great Circus Train crash released wild animals around Altoona

City girls held their skirts and country girls held their hats when...

A PRR light bulb brightness tester - Ulbrecht Sphere

A PRR eyeglass tester

View into the Raystown Lake valley on the road home from Altoona

Some decorations for Halloween in June at Lake Raystown

Little ghosts dancing


We completed our first week at Lake Raystown RV Resort. We’ve had some heat, thunderstorms, rain and even a tornado watch last Wednesday, but we had a beautiful weekend. On Saturday, we drove to Altoona a little north of where we are staying to see the Horseshoe Curve and the Railroaders Memorial Museum. It was an interesting trip because we learned a lot about the railroad history of the area.

The Horseshoe Curve was built in the 1850’s to ease the train trip across the Allegheny Mountains from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Before the curve was constructed, the trains moved across the mountains using a series of inclined planes or funiculars, what we always called inclines. This was a slow process. When the Pennsylvania Railroad was incorporated in 1847, it took on the job of rebuilding the stretch of railroad from Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The result was the Horseshoe Curve which provided a gradual rise to take the trains to the top of the mountain. The amazing part was that it was done without heavy equipment, only men with picks and shovels, and horses. The remaining part of the mountain inside the curve was leveled in 1879 to allow the construction of a park and observation area. It was the first built for viewing trains. Today there is a museum and a funicular you can ride to the observation area. We rode it to see if I could get any good train pictures. Trains went by when we arrived, as we were waiting for the funicular, but when we got to the top we waited for over an hour and no trains. We decided to walk down the zigzag steps to the bottom and as soon as we were about a third of the way down two trains came around the curve, one in each direction. No luck with train pictures on Saturday.

The rail line has been important since its opening, and during World War II the Curve was targeted by Nazi Germany in 1942 as part of Operation Pastorius, four men were brought by submarine and landed on Long Island. Horseshoe Curve was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and became a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 2004. We visited the Tehachapi Loop, another railroad Civil Engineering Landmark, a few years ago which like the Horseshoe Curve was built to allow trains to traverse the Sierra Nevada Mountains between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert in California.

When we arrived in the parking lot of the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Park Visitors Center, two antique Dodge Brothers cars drove into the parking lot. On was a 1924 and the other was a 1928. They were owned by two couples from England who brought the cars over by ship. They were traveling from Baltimore to Detroit to attend the Dodge Brothers 2014 Centennial Meet. The Dodge Brothers were machinist in Michigan who actually got Ford Motor Company off the ground when they agreed to give Ford $7,000 worth of automobile parts and $3,000 in cash that he needed to start in return for a ten-percent stake in Ford. Dodge manufactured every part of the Ford car except for the buckboard wooden seats and the rubber tires. When Ford finished his River Rouge Plant in Detroit in 1914, he no longer needed the Dodge Brothers, but he offered to lease their plant and run it. The Brothers had other ideas. They decided to build their own car and by the end of 1914 the first Dodge car rolled off the assembly line. It was apparently better than the Model T, but was only $100 more expensive. Henry Ford was not happy because the dividends he was paying to the Dodge Brothers were bankrolling their operation which was competing with the Ford. He stopped paying dividends to all shareholders and was sued by the Dodge Brothers who won the suit and were paid $19 million in back dividends. They eventually sold all of their Ford stock and made a pile of money. The brothers made so much money from their dealings with Ford that business historians now consider it the most profitable investment in the history of American commerce. Eventually the boys died and their company was sold to a Wall Street investment firm by the family and eventually to Walter P. Chrysler, the head of Chrysler Corporation. Apparently the profitability of Dodge allowed Chrysler to grow to become one of the Big Three. It along with Chrysler are all that’s left of Chrysler Corporation.

After the leaving the Curve, we headed to the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona. I never knew that Altoona was a railroading center for much of the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. The city was home to the Altoona Works, the Pennsylvania Railroad's repair and maintenance shops, locomotive construction facility, and test department. Altoona's location at the foot of the Alleghenies and its proximity to the Horseshoe Curve over the mountains made the city a key location in the PRR's operations. The PRR was one of the most important contributors to the industrial revolution in the United States. By the 1920’s, the Altoona Works employed 15,000 workers and by 1945 the facilities had become the world's largest rail shop complex. The Altoona Works declined in importance after PRR merged with New York Central in 1957 to form Penn Central and the combined company began loosing money. The PC, the nation’s 6th largest corporation, declared bankruptcy in 1970, the largest at the time. The viable parts were transferred to Conrail in 1976, which was eventually broken up in 1999, with roughly equal parts of Conrail going to the Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation. At present, the locomotive shop at Juniata is all that is left and is operated by Norfolk Southern and employs around 1,100 men and women.

There were interesting stories in the Museum about the PRR, the Altoona Works, and the people of Altoona. The displays were a combination of railroad artifacts and videos with personal stories of life in a city that was driven by the activities of the railroad and Altoona Works. Altoona was a company town in every sense of the words. A ubiquitous part of life in Altoona before diesel engines was ash and cinders from the coal burning steam locomotives.

I spent Father’s Day relaxing and reading under Winnie’s awning after getting phone calls from My Three Sons. It was a fine day, but back to work today. I meant this to be a quick update, but I guess I got a little wordy. I hope you enjoyed it anyway. ‘Til next week.

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