Altoona, PA (ALT)
The Pennsylvania Railroad established Altoona in 1849 as a base for its rail operations over the Alleghenies; the transportation center is located near the Railroaders Memorial Museum.
1231 11th Avenue
Altoona, PA 16601
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 22,164
- Facility Ownership: Redevelopment Authority of Altoona
- Parking Lot Ownership: Redevelopment Authority of Altoona
- Platform Ownership: Norfolk Southern Railway
- Track Ownership: Norfolk Southern Railway
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
As the Pennsylvanian glides into Altoona, passengers catch a glimpse of the imposing dome of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, framed against the rolling foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Rail passengers pass through the Altoona Transportation Center, which is located in the middle of town and across the tracks from Station Mall and the nearby Railroaders Memorial Museum. The transportation center also accommodates local and intercity bus service.
Completed in 1986, the building has a ground floor passenger area with parking on the upper stories. A bridge over 10th Avenue gives access to the platforms where a long trackside canopy protects passengers from inclement weather while they wait for the arrival of the train. As a result of the wooden formwork used to cast the poured-in-place concrete walls, a distinct pattern of slight ridges runs across the station façade. When the sun rakes across the surface, the ridges create shadow lines that add depth and texture to the composition. In contrast to the hard exterior building materials, the waiting room’s wood paneled ceiling creates a rich and warm aura with its brown and honey color tones.
When European-Americans first began to settle in the mountains of central Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, it was primarily controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy of American Indians based to the north in the New York region. Much of Pennsylvania was used as a hunting ground with villages located at the intersections of natural and manmade paths. By the 1730s, traders from the east began to move into the area to set up commercial posts, but formal settlement was illegal since William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had recognized the Iroquois’ claim to land in the center of the colony. Not until the Penn family purchased a large tract from the Iroquois in 1754 did the area formally open up to colonists. Growth was halted by the French and Indian War of the late 1750s-early 1760s, but picked up at the close of that conflict. During the Revolutionary War, patriot forces constructed stockades on the frontier as a defense against British-allied American Indian groups.
The Altoona area was home to iron forges by the first decade of the 19th century, but the city was not formed until new transportation demands brought it into existence at mid-century. As early as 1786, regularly scheduled stage trips began between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—the commonwealth’s principal Atlantic port and the gateway to the Ohio River Valley, respectively—but the grueling journey took three weeks, as poor roads made night travel nearly impossible. Looking for a better link across the state, the legislature was dismayed by the opening of the National Road in Maryland and the Erie Canal in New York during the 1820s, transportation routes that threatened to siphon off trade from Pennsylvania.
The state quickly devised its own transportation plan: the Main Line of Public Works. At a cost of more than $10 million, it included a series of roads, railroads, and canals built from 1826-1835. Upon completion, travel time was cut to only four days. A few miles to the southeast of present day Altoona, the small village of Hollidaysburg became the western terminus of the Juniata Division of the canal that ran to the Susquehanna River. To reach the Western Division of the canal more than 30 miles away at Johnstown, it was necessary to cross the heights of the Allegheny Mountains. Faced with this daunting topography, engineers conceived the Allegheny Portage Railroad to be composed of a series of inclined planes and short rail lines. Goods, or even whole canal boats were lifted out of the water at Hollidaysburg and then transported westward over the difficult terrain.
The dramatic reduction in time devoted to transit and the resulting savings to both passengers and shippers left everyone looking for an even better travel option. A full rail connection held the most promise. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was chartered by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1846 to construct a rail line between Harrisburg and Pittsburg in order to bypass the slower canals and roadways.
In 1849, the PRR established Altoona as a base for its rail operations over the Alleghenies, and the next year the tracks had reached the area from Harrisburg. Various surveys had been conducted to identify routes across the mountains. At Altoona, the PRR trains could follow low grades and then take a steep but short climb over the mountains. Approaching the town, the grade increased from about 20 to 95 feet a mile; therefore, helper locomotives had to be available to assist westbound trains. Altoona’s central location between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh also made it an ideal point for a locomotive and car repair facility since it could be easily accessed from either east of west. In addition, the region held rich reserves of iron, coal, and lumber, all of which were required for the construction of railroad infrastructure and rolling stock.
The PRR spent $10,000 to purchase 224 acres of David Robeson’s farm in the heart of the Logan Valley. Fifteen acres were set aside for repair shops and other facilities which were under construction within a year. Realizing the magnitude of the operations that the railroad planned for the new town, two neighboring landowners platted part of their properties for development.
The origin of the name “Altoona” remains uncertain. One story recounts that John Wright, who was the son of the man who bought the Robeson property on behalf of the PRR, had spent time in Georgia. While there, he came across the Cherokee word “eladuni” that he believed translated as “the high lands of great worth”—appropriate for a mountain town. Wright’s spelling, “allatoona”, was a bit different, and it later morphed into “Altoona.” Another story indicates that an engineer working on the laying of tracks in the new town suggested the name “Altona” after a German city near Hamburg that was known as a railway center.
As a town created to serve the railroad, the tracks formed the backbone of the community. The first complex of repair shops was built on the parcel on which Station Mall now stands. Once they became too crowded, additional structures were built to the northeast in 1869-70; the last major expansion was undertaken 20 years later, when a new locomotive shop complex was built further northeast at Juniata. The PRR was one of the first railroads to undertake the design, construction, and maintenance of its fleet of locomotives and various cars. It also pioneered the standardization of the fleet so that replacement parts could be easily manufactured, ensuring that repairs were quick.
By the end of the century, the Altoona rail yard and shop complex was one of the largest railroad repair and construction facilities in the world, and widely admired for its efficiency and scale of production. The area occupied by the freight yard and shops stretched for almost 5 miles through the city and was often up to four blocks in width; it covered more than 215 acres and held more than 100 buildings. Paint, flue, boiler, blacksmith, upholstery, and cabinet shops dotted the landscape, as did iron and brass foundries and planing mills. A number of large round houses were the subject of photos featured in popular contemporary railroad journals. The PRR was also one of the first railroads to build a testing facility to assess the strength and reliability of its parts and engines. In addition to components for locomotives and cars, the Altoona shops also produced parts for bridges and other railroad infrastructure.
Passengers first used a station at 9th Avenue and 12th Street, which was later replaced by successive structures on the other side of the shop complex at 13th Street and 10th Avenue. In 1887, the PRR erected a new two story brick station designed by Philadelphia based architect George Ignatius Lovatt in the then-popular Romanesque Revival style. Through the use of large arches, rock-faced stone, and Medieval-inspired detailing, permanence and solidity were emphasized, two qualities appropriate to a railroad that by the turn of the 20th century was one of the largest corporations in the world.
The placement of the main entrance was emphasized by a large gable whose attic story contained a grouping of three round arch windows surrounded by bricks laid in a basketweave pattern. At the ground level, double doors were set into a large archway whose span was highlighted through brickwork and stone accents. Prominent stone detailing on the facades included a decorative carved beltcourse, rock-faced lintels, coping, and finials. The station was later demolished and replaced by the Altoona Transportation Center in a redevelopment move typical of a period when historic structures were leveled rather than renovated or reused.
Next to the station was the famed Logan House, a hotel funded by the PRR and completed in 1853. With a deep and inviting verandah stretching more than 200 feet along the tracks, the hotel featured hot running water and gas lighting. The platform area and tracks were covered by a large cast iron train shed that protected travelers from inclement weather. Before dining cars were standard, passengers had to detrain to take meals and the main dining room of the Logan House buzzed with activity. Altoona was a natural stop since it was also a division point where train crews had to be exchanged.
At the center of an extensive rail network, Altoona was chosen to host the Conference of Northern War Governors in September 1862. Convened at the Logan House by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, the gathering of leaders discussed the events of the Civil War and publicly endorsed the efforts of President Lincoln, including his plan to emancipate the slaves within the Confederacy. The hotel stayed in operation until 1927 when the PRR sold it to the federal government, which later tore it down to build a new post office.
The city grew from the start and the Civil War soon increased demand for cars and locomotives to transport war materiel and troops; from 1860 to 1870, the population more than tripled. Although other industries were established, such as an iron foundry and silk thread factory, the PRR remained the main employer. Out of a population of roughly 39,000 in 1900, 9,000 residents of the city worked directly for the PRR in one of the shops or along the rails. Most were skilled laborers, including Irish and German immigrants recruited in their home countries. To encourage the development of civic and social institutions, the railroad donated funds for the construction of a library, hospital, and parks.
With the completion of major infrastructure projects west of Altoona in 1854—the Horseshoe Curve and the Gallitzin Tunnels—the all-rail route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was in full operation. The Horseshoe Curve, still considered an engineering marvel more than a century and a half later, is a 2,375 foot rail line that wraps around a valley and rises 122 feet in elevation from its northern to southern end. To build it, railroad workers had to fill two ravines and carve away part of a mountain; daunting as this seems, these actions were still easier than building a bridge across the valley, for its necessary grade would have been too high for locomotives to handle on a regular basis. Just west of the curve, the PRR completed the 3,612 foot long Gallitzin Tunnels through the base of the Alleghenies. With the Horseshoe Curve and the Gallitzin Tunnels opened, the trip time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was cut from 4 days to an amazing 15 hours, and the obstacle presented by the Alleghenies was finally conquered.
The transportation infrastructure at Altoona was considered so vital to national mobility and security that during World War II it was guarded against attack by foreign agents, including a Nazi plan to sabotage the rail lines. After a boost during the war, activity at the shops declined as federal policies backed new transportation modes such as the personal automobile and airplanes. The mid-20th century also brought changes to the railroad industry. Steam locomotives were replaced by diesel versions that required less maintenance and therefore led to job cuts. Starting in 1956, most of the work at Altoona was shifted to a smaller facility in Hollidaysburg. Today, part of the Juniata Shops complex is in use by Norfolk Southern Corporation, which controls part of the former PRR main line as a successor to the PRR and its successor, Conrail. Just as a century ago, locomotives are repaired, built, and rebuilt at the facility.
With the loss of its economic base, Altoona attempted to reinvent its downtown in the 1970s and 1980s by demolishing much of the abandoned lower yards in favor of new construction. Although a number of railroad structures are now gone, visitors with an interest in the railroad, America’s industrial heritage, and engineering can still occupy a few days with trips to Horseshoe Curve and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The former is a National Historic Landmark with a viewing platform and picnic tables near the center of the curve while the latter is maintained by the National Park Service and includes exhibits and models as well as a network of walking and biking trails along some of the inclined planes. Near the Altoona Transportation Center, the Railroaders Memorial Museum, housed in the former Master Mechanics Building of the shops, explores the contributions of railroaders and their families to American life and industry. Displays include historic photographs and life size dioramas of railroad workers performing various tasks typical of the Altoona shops.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station which is served by two daily trains.
The Pennsylvanian is financed primarily through funds made available by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Accessible Ticket Office
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Baggage Storage
- Bike Boxes
- Dedicated Parking
- Elevator Accessible
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Help With Luggage
- Long Term Parking Spaces
- Pay Phones
- Short Term Parking Spaces
- Ticket Office
- Wheelchair Lift