By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Below us, from the parking lot of the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark, mountains green with spring leaves stretch as far as we can see. More than 1,700 feet above us, a train that appears to be miles long is curving along tracks that hug the sides of the highest mountains.
My three nephews, all 13, leap from the car and dash up 194 steps to reach a small retaining wall just inches from the railroad tracks. Assured by the receptionist in the gift shop that another train would be by soon, I wait for the funicular -- a tramlike vehicle that climbs the steep slope to the tracks.
This is the best spot in North America to watch trains, says a fellow funicular traveler, Joseph Waldorf. A "train spotting" enthusiast who has traveled to central Pennsylvania from Illinois to visit the Curve, Waldorf explains that not only is the view spectacular and the train traffic frequent, but this section of track is an engineering marvel, and part of what was once the greatest rail complex in the world.
Railroad fans occasionally gather here, a three-hour drive from Washington, for international conventions, Waldorf says, and usually supplement their train spotting with a trip to the nearby Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona.
By the time I reach the tracks, the freight train has gone. But already I can hear the grinding sound of another climbing the mountain. About five minutes later, it passes, shaking the ground beneath my feet in a deafening roar of power. Loud, massive things with moving parts -- an experience made for boys in general, and my nephews in particular.
This length of track, opened in 1854, created a major boom in the westward expansion of a young country. Engineers had spent decades trying to figure out a way to go under, over or through the Allegheny Mountains. Finally, the Pennsylvania Railroad's chief engineer decided to move mountains. Men with pickaxes and shovels sliced into two mountains and filled the deep ravines that divided them to create a curved but level area to lay tracks.
At least 18 American presidents have ridden trains along the Curve, I learn in the visitors center, whose displays explain the challenge of creating the landmark. The route was so critical to the movement of war materiel during World War II that it was a top target of Nazi saboteurs who were captured after a U-boat dropped them near Long Island, N.Y.
After rounding up my nephews we drive five miles to the museum, which is housed mainly in a historic building that was once part of a thriving railroad complex.
In the early and mid-1900s, more than 50 passenger trains a day stopped in Altoona, and by 1945 the city was the world's largest center for making railroad cars and locomotives, employing 17,000.
The museum owns about 25 railroad cars, and by next spring will have a new $3 million roundhouse that will allow the cars to be easily moved around the museum grounds.
I sit at a picnic table while the boys run into one of the cars. After about 10 minutes I decide to have a look, figuring the car must hold some special display inside. But it's just an empty rail car. What could have held their interest so long? I understand as I find them on the outside of the carriage, looking beneath the oblong iron monster to figure out how the wheels move, examining every bolt and strut.
Consider how excited they'd be if they could actually ride a historic train. That's an opportunity that comes once a year, when a Philadelphia man, Bennett Levin, helps the museum raise money by offering excursions on the 1950s-era passenger trains that he owns. This year, the trains will run July 7 and 8, with one taking hour-long local hops and another traveling between Harrisburg and Altoona.
"Some of us have toy trains. Bennett has the real thing," says museum director Scott Cessna. He notes that Levin has also used his trains to take injured Iraq war veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital to Army-Navy football games.
Inside the museum, exhibits focus on the lives of the men and women who ran the railroad and worked in the shops. Mostly men. Women helped run the railroad during World War II. However, all but the hookers were expected to give up their jobs when the veterans returned. Not that men couldn't have done the job: "Hookers" in this case is a term referring to crane operators.
We round off our day with an Altoona Curve ballgame in a stadium that is a dead ringer for Camden Yards, only smaller. The Curve, a Pirates AA team, killed the Harrisburg Senators, a team affiliated with the Nationals, 7-1.
The boys spend about half the game watching, half roaming the stadium and stocking up on junk food. They always return to their seats for between-innings antics, hoping to be picked to run onto the field and compete for such prizes as $20 restaurant certificates or, in one case, $50 off any car at a local dealership. Home runs warrant a brief spurt of fireworks, with bigger displays at the end.
What more could any All-American boy ask for than junk food, trains and baseball in one short trip? An amusement park. From the stadium they can see Lakemont Park. Between innings, when the park is open, the Curve mascot -- Steamer, a steam locomotive -- rides the roller coaster and waves to the stadium crowd. But Lakemont doesn't open this season until May 19.
"Can we come back and do it all again when the park's open?" they want to know.
I answer more like a mother than an aunt: "We'll see."