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Pennsylvania’s Hard Hills

June 2024
5min read

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.

Its recently completed visitors’ center is in a club cottage on what was the other side of the lake. Looking out from it, you see an empty valley with a creek at the bottom (the dam was never rebuilt); on the other side of the valley you can make out the clubhouse and the neighborhood around it. Down to the right is the high, breached embankment where the dam broke. The sense of both the placid beauty of the valley and the hideous volume of water it released is visceral.

The main attraction in the visitors’ center is a film titled Black Friday . It turns out to be a horror movie, with footage from old silents about disasters and actors in period garb playing flood victims’ ghosts shrieking from beyond the grave. A sign on the screening-room door warns: “Parental Discretion Advised.” The woman at the desk told me, “Kids just love it, but we like to warn the parents.”

The Heritage Trail heads from there into Johnstown largely along the twenty-two-mile route of the floodwaters, which crushed the city under a thirty-six-foot-high torrent of water, buildings, bridges, trees, and other debris, killing more than two thousand residents.

The nineteenth-century sites along the route are all landmarks of man’s battles—not always winning—against enormous natural forces.

Johnstown has a Flood Museum in a former library built after the flood by Andrew Carnegie, who had been a member of the South Fork Club. Again the highlight is a film, but here it is a straight documentary, and an Academy Award-winning one at that. Its sober account of the cataclysm is as moving as all the horror of Black Friday , and far more informative.

The last stop on the Heritage Trail, after the cemetery where most of the flood dead were buried, is the Johnstown Inclined Plane, a distant relative of the inclined planes of the Portage Railroad. It carries passengers and automobiles up a walllike hillside that Johnstown backs up against. The plane was built two years after the flood, in 1891, as a commuter line but also for evacuation in case of future floods. It survives today mainly for tourists and offers a fine view of Johnstown. At the top you can look at the original machinery that still winds the cable.

Looking down at Johnstown, I took in the dark spread of the aging Cambria Iron Works, the employer around which the town grew. Many of the victims of the 1889 flood worked there, and two thousand Johnstown residents work there still, making bars, rods, and wires for Bethlehem Steel. When I visited, Bethlehem had decided to either sell the plant or close it. I talked to a man who said, “I was there forty-two years, and I never thought it would come to this. They can’t find a buyer. I never thought it would come to it.” As I write, Bethlehem is negotiating with a steel company in India to take it over.

My whole day had been spent among relics of people’s fights against great forces in this difficult region. From portage railroad to horseshoe curve to flood to ailing steel mill—and to an attempt at building tourism around a bleak history—these people had kept at it. It made past and present seem not far apart at all.

—Frederick Alien

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