Pennsylvania’s Hard Hills

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After the coal and steel industries collapsed, we approached our congressmen about how we could develop tourism around here. A Park Service study found that if we combined our cultural and natural resources, we might have a good chance.” Randy Cooley is explaining how there came to be a Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission; he is its executive director. The Altoona region never had much tourism, and rather than try to become something new—say, by building casinos—the area took a chance on playing up its unpretty industrial past. “We ended up with a plan to preserve and promote the stories of iron, steel, coal, transportation, social, and labor history in the region.” Last summer, as a result, a forty-seven-mile Heritage Route opened between Altoona and Johnstown; by 1994 it will be part of a five-hundred-mile loop covering nine counties. Cooley says: “I hope the sum will be greater than the parts. It will give people some insight into the development of the nation at large.”

On a drizzly June morning I drove out of Altoona, where the route begins with a railroad museum, an 1811 iron furnace, and an 1840s mansion, and headed up toward the Allegheny Ridge behind town, to the Horseshoe Curve, a truly heroic engineering marvel of the 1850s. There the Pennsylvania Railroad breached the barrier of the Alleghenies. A brand-new visitors’ center stands at the foot of a steep wall of the Appalachian backbone, and from there a new inclined-plane cable car and a stairway rise to a viewing area a hundred feet higher.

At the top I could look down out the valley to the open lands beyond or up at the ridgetop on three sides and the railroad tracks that curved below it in a vast U that surrounded the valley. On one side of the U, the tracks rose gradually from Altoona; directly in front of the viewing area they swept around the head of the valley before continuing up the other side. The scale was monumental, surprisingly so for this hunched, deciduous Eastern landscape. And it grew more monumental when a train labored by.

First a freight train appeared through the trees in the distance, climbing slowly from Altoona. Two Conrail diesel locomotives were hauling hundreds of flatcars, almost all of them carrying either stacks of truck chassis or whole truck trailers. As the train reached the curve, the wheels shrieked, metal against metal. The train pulled uphill hardly faster than you could run, it seemed. A few minutes later an Amtrak passenger train, the Broadway Limited, came the other way, descending. As it rolled by, passengers and conductors and waiters waved through the windows at the few of us watching.

This road, the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was once known as America’s Highway, and freight trains hundreds of cars long still pass over it almost constantly today. The Horseshoe Curve opened in 1854, its looping gradual rise giving the railroad an unbroken line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Building it was a hellish job for men using picks, shovels, gun-powder, and mules. It became and remained a crucial enough artery for Nazi saboteurs to plan to blow it up in 1942 (they were caught).

Leaving the curve, I drove up along the Heritage Route to the little town of Gallitzin, where ancient handmade tunnels take the railroad through the summit of the mountain, and then to Cresson, site of the elaborate system that carried traffic over the heights before the Horseshoe Curve was built—the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

In 1834 the first railroad-and-canal route across the state stopped at the foot of the Alleghenies, where a concatenation of level trains and inclined planes—five inclined planes on either side—ferried the traffic over the mountain. The inclined planes consisted of railcars hoisted up short, steep grades by cables pulled by small stationary steam engines. The system was, in its moment, a triumph.

Like the Horseshoe Curve, the Portage Railroad has a brand-new visitors’ center. Exhibits there make it clear that the ride was terrifying. Travelers on it are quoted writing things like “This was one of the awful, fearful, dangerous, exciting, affecting, grand, sublime and interesting day’s journeys I ever took in my life.” Models show how it all worked, how cargo was laboriously transferred, how easily a cable could snap, sending cars and passengers plummeting.

Behind the visitors’ center in a broad clearing stand the beginnings of a reconstruction: about fifty yards of crude wooden rails topped by iron straps on a steep hillside; a pit at the top where a hoisting engine will be duplicated from scratch; a stone house that was an inn. In plain view a ways behind this, trailer trucks cruise down a modern highway at sixty-five miles an hour. They look like magic.

From there I drove on through the Allegheny highland—coal-mining country—toward its western slope and into St. Michael, home to a landmark of another battle against natural forces, this a battle that was lost, through man’s own fault. St. Michael was the site of the resort whose private lake burst its ill-maintained dam to loose the deadly Johnstown Flood of 1889. The three-story wooden former clubhouse of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club stands at what was once the edge of the lake; now it is a residential neighborhood with no water in sight. From there a five-minute drive, past a tiny coal-mining museum, leads to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.