Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark

Location: Altoona, Pennsylvania

Webpage: National Historic Landmark

General Description: Competed in 1854, the Horseshoe Curve was the latest attempt by the Pennsylvania Railroad to cross the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.  The Horseshoe Curve spans 220 degrees over 2375 feet which gives a curvature of about 9 degrees.  The elevation change along the curve is 122 feet on a grade of 1.8%.  Long trains can be seen both coming and going at the same time as they traverse the curve.  In the early 1800s wagon trains could make the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 20 days in good weather.  Construction of the canals and the Allegheny Portage Railroad over the Allegheny Mountains reduced this dramatically to 4 days when the canals were not frozen.  By 1852 trains could bypass the incline planes of the Allegheny Portage Railroad on the New Allegheny Portage Railroad, but transportation was limited to the daylight hours.  With the addition of the Horseshoe Curve travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was reduced to 15 hours in all weather conditions.  At its peak use in the early 1900s there were three tracks to handle to traffic.  Today this has been reduced to two tracks to accommodate trains traveling in both directions of which a normal day will see 1-2 trains an hour.  This track was so important during WWII that Nazi saboteurs that were captured on the East coast included Horseshoe Curve as one of the 12 key industrial sites.  A Visitor Center, gift shop, and museum greets visitors at the base of the curve.  Visitors can then either brave the 192 steps to the tracks or take advantage of the Funicular, an inclined plane that run every half hour.


1) The Visitor Center and gift shop at the base of the curve is nicely maintained and provides a nice waiting area for guests waiting for the next run of the Funicular.


2) The ride up the incline plane on the Funicular is a short trip, but gives a good view of the surrounding valley as you ascend to the tracks.


3) There are a few interpretive signs along the tracks giving some of the history of the curve, along with an old steam engine.  However, the main reason for visiting the curve has to be watching the trains going around the curve.  You can hear them from quite a distance as they negotiate the tracks leading up the mountain and the engines of the longer trains will have disappeared from the head of the curve before the end of the train enters the curve.  It must be a strange sight for the engineers to be able to look at the back of their own train!!  We tried to capture this in pictures, but it is difficult to see all around the curve at once.