Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark
Deemed the most monumental railroad feat ever accomplished, Horseshoe Curve was the creation of John Edgar Thompson. Located at the base of the Allegheny Mountains, construction began in early 1850 with absolutely no modern advances in technology available for use. The curve was completed and opened on February 15, 1854. This accomplishment drastically changed transportation, and decreased travel times that usually included trips from weeks to months, down to hours.
Backstory and Context
John Edgar Thompson, Chief Engineer for the Pennsylvania Rail Road, went against the suggestions of other engineers who proposed a route from Lewistown that followed the ridge lines, and chose instead a lower route with flatter terrain that hugged the Juniata River as a new route west. Using and improving upon surveys that had been completed in 1842, John Edgar Thompson accepted the challenge that lay ahead on his chosen route...The Allegheny Mountains.
West of Altoona, PA, the steeper grade presented a monumental challenge. Thompson had a plan. West of Atoona, the valley was split into two ravines by a mountain. Thompson filled in the first ravine with earth fill, and cut the point of the mountain between the ravines and filled the second ravine.
The construction of the curve was completed by about 450 men, most of which were Irish immigrants. The work was completed by hand with pick, shovels, horses, and drags. They worked 12 hour days, and were paid 25 cents per hour.
Prior to the completion of the curve, transportation was very different, long, and arduous. Travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburg by wagon typically took about 20 days. The same trip utilizing rail by way of the Allegheny Portage Rail Road, and canal, took around 4 days in 1834. By 1852, the railroad had advanced enough to traverse the state of PA using the Allegheny Portage Railroad which did not operate at night. The advantage of the Horseshoe Curve was that passengers were no longer dependent on the canals. They could complete their travels exclusively by rail in around 15 hours.
Many famous names traveled the Horseshoe Curve. Among those famous names were Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and many screen and stage actors.
The park has a Funicular, which is an incline ride that transports you from visitor's center up to the train tracks at Horseshoe Curve. The museum houses displays depicting the work that was needed to accomplish such a feat. There is also a gift and souvenir shop on site dedicated to all things railroad related.