A Look Back at the Curve

Atop Kittanning Point, one can take in the beauty of the Alleghany Mountains and envision the physical challenges this land presented to early travel and commerce across Pennsylvania.

From my vantage, I can see Logan Valley in the distance, the last relatively flat geographical feature the Pennsylvania Railroad could follow on its journey west from Harrisburg. With the easy terrain behind, the railroad now faced the Alleghany Front, rising 1000 vertical feet above the valley. These steep mountains had been a barrier for centuries as there are no natural water gaps through them, forcing the Indians to find a path that climbed over the mountains. Before me, there is an opening into the Front with a gradual climb that the Indians had established as a trail, which started in the Logan valley and passed through here. The railroad surveyors liked it as well and decided that this is where the railroad would begin its ascent of the Alleghenies. Before starting on what would be the most difficult construction of the line, the railroad established a base of operations at the foot of the hill. That would be the company town of Altoona, which now fills a good part of the far valley before me.

A diesel exhaust plume rises over Wikes Curve, a tell-tale sign that a train is making the assault on ‘the mountain’, the name giving this division by the railroaders that operate it. The train is three miles away and the foliage is thick, but I can easily follow its journey up the valley as the white diesel smoke reaches way above the treetops. The train disappears for a few minutes behind a hill and then reappears at a Millers Curve, about a mile closer to me. Headlights are now clearly visible and the exhaust plume seems to rise even higher from the protesting locomotives. A long line of freight cars follows and a second set of blueish white plumes round the curve indicating that rear pushers are straining against the weight of the train. Hidden once again by foliage, the train is not seen, but the intensifying rumble tells me it’s position as it grinds uphill. One last major curve, Scotch Run, changes the train’s direction and it is now making a final run towards Kittanning Point. It will travel another mile and a half before it gets close enough for me to make out the locomotive and car features, and by that time will fill the valley with thunder.

Having followed the gentle climb into the Front, the train is heading straight for some very steep mountains and has no choice but to turn away from me on the famed curve known simply as Horseshoe, which lies 600 feet below me. The engines are working in Notch-8 and their sounds echo against the hills with whining traction motors, howling blower motors and wailing turbochargers. Throw in the metallic harmonic wail of steel wheels squealing against steel rails and the sound is music to my ears. The noise is constant and broken only briefly as the engines go behind the large rock cut that the Irish laborers knocked away by pick and shovel when they constructed the curve in 1854. Exiting the curve, the diesels strain to maintain the train speed and soon enter yet another curve. This one leads the train around another mountain and out of my view. But, the show isn’t over yet…this manifest train is a mile long and the pushers are now making their entrance into the curve. The throbbing and whining of the pusher units fill the valley as they give it their all to help lift the train through the curve. Gradually the train climbs higher and as it does so, the sound dissipates as the train disappears around the bend.

As the train climbs the other side of the ridge, the valley turns quite once again and I can refocus on the natural splendor before me. The quite lasts about 10 minutes before being suddenly broken by the loud sound of hard working locomotives. Without a train in sight, I realize that the train I had witnessed is now approaching the crest of the summit and through some fluke of geography funnels the sound directly to my position atop Kittanning Point, some 3 miles away as the crow flies. Without the low shrill of steel wheels against steel rail, and absent the whine of the blower motors and turbochargers, the diesel generators are very distinct and loud, giving the impression that the locomotives are working harder now than when they passed beneath me on Horseshoe. A horn blows for the tunnel and then I just hear a deep rumble until the helpers make it to the crest and then the locomotive sounds repeat once again. The rumble and chug trails off as the train gets deeper into the tunnel and then goes silent.

Experiencing the curve trackside is engaging, but from Kittanning Point it is truly magnificent!

George Hetzel painted Horseshoe Bend in 1876. In the center is Kittanning Point. This scene is relatively accurate and shows the sloping valley that the Indians had used as a path into the Alleghany Front. The path went around the rightside mountain and up a steep ravine to crest the mountains. The railroad did not have that option and established the curve here. .

This is the last bastion of large scale manned helper operations in North America, a practice started by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1854 when they completed the line over the Alleghany Mountains. While the helpers have been integral to operations ever since, new technologies and economic realities drive change, and one day this operation could be over. With that thought in my mind, it was time for me to spend some time on the famed East Slope exploring and photographing the operation before change comes.

This 1875 image, from The Pennsylvania Railroad: Its Origin, Construction, Condition, and Connections, shows a busy main line. Note the number of helpers; one added to the passenger train heading uphill, a helper drifting downhill light, and the downhill freight train with a helper on the rear.


At first glance, this 1884 illustration from the Album of Pennsylvania RR Scenery appears the same as the one above, but it’s illustrated in a different style and meant for mass printing. It is obviously based upon the 1875 image, but with some changes. The third car in the passenger train has been made to represent a passenger car and the light helper has been removed.


History has always been important to me and when I visit a railroad or geographical location, I want to find out as much as I can about its past. Understanding why a railroad was built and how it serves in the present is vital to me in making the economic and geographical connections for a railroad’s being. Equally important, is discovering how that railroad and region were portrayed visually over time. Hopefully earlier generation of artists and photographers have picked up the essence and significance of the region and expressed it visually. From them, I can be informed, as well inspired for my own creative interpretation.

Altoona and the Allegheny Mountains were unfamiliar to me and I spent a lot of time researching the railroad’s history and survey over the mountains. What struck me in my research was how significant the Alleghenies were as a barrier to east/west travel until the railroad’s coming. This mountain chain forms the Eastern Continental Divide; water flows from its crest to either the Atlantic or into the Gulf, but nowhere directly through it. Without a natural passage through the mountains, the Indians had to establish footpaths that went through stream valleys and ravines as much as they could. Many of these were in use centuries before Europeans explored the area, but they adapted them for their own use. None of these paths were ideal for the efficient flow of travel or commerce, but there were few other options.

This early illustration depicts the Alleghenies as wilderness that has been conquered by the railroad. The mountains in the background are illustrated bigger than they were from this vantage, but are typical of the setting. The Pennsylvania Railroad: Its Origin, Construction, Condition, and Connections, Williams B. Sipes, Published by the Passenger Department, 1875


This slightly later depiction of the curve promotes the scenic beauty of the mountains and harmonious blending of the railroad into the landscape. The trains themselves are over-whelmed in the scene, but still significant for their role in traveling through it. The Horse Shoe Curve, Album of Pennsylvania RR Scenery, 1888


By the early 1800’s, canal routes had been developed to the north and south of the Allegheny Front, but a trans-Pennsylvania route was still missing. Losing out financially to better positioned cities, a group of Philadelphia merchants and investors pushed the state government to pioneer a canal route across the state linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it’s two most important cities. While much of the route took advantage of favorable river courses to cover ground, the Alleghenies offered no such option. The route was completed by building a series of 10 cable railway inclined planes that allowed special railroad carriages to literally carry the canal boats over the mountains. This route, the Pennsylvania Mainline of Public Works, opened in 1834 and decreased travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from 20 days to 4, but couldn’t carry the volume of traffic that the two cities generated to make an economic difference.

A decade after the expensive Pennsylvania Mainline of Public Works canal system was completed, railroads had eclipsed barges as the best means to transport goods. To the south in Maryland, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was extending its way west, while up in New York, the Erie Railroad was completing a line to its namesake lake. Fearful for the loss of business opportunities and clout once again, the financiers and merchants of Pennsylvania made a push for an all-rail route linking their prime cities. The Pennsylvania Railroad was soon chartered by the state and just like the earlier canal enterprise, made great use of the water courses by following them much of the way. Again, the Allegheny Front was the obstacle that could not be avoided and multiple routes were surveyed. The chief engineer, John Edgar Thompson, picked a short, but steep ascent that followed one of the old Indian paths into the front. When the path steepened too much for the railroad to follow, the line turned back on itself to take an adjacent ridge up the mountain. This horse shoe shaped curve was a stroke of engineering brilliance that continues to awe us 163 years later.

Prior to the railroad’s construction over the Allegheny Front, much of the area was still wilderness and looked like it had for centuries. After completing the railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad was eager to promote its achievements to a public that considered the railroad the technological wonder of its day. Illustrations, soon followed by photographs, were published and distributed en-mass of what the railroad considered important aesthetic and engineering features along the line. While there are many significant and scenic places along the line, the horseshoe curve was the most accessible; it was easy to see from the train and to visit, as a station was built there to encourage day visits from the local region. Over time, the railroad quit promoting the other features along the line and emphasized Horseshoe Curve.

With my trove of promotional images, I did a lot of hiking alongside the right-of-way and into the hills above, looking for the vistas and scenes that had been pictured years ago. Some of my reference images were from the railroads completion and while the line has not changed, the landscape has. Where early scenes show huge fills and gaping cuts into the mountains; years of foliage growth not only obscured these elements, but now make them seem a natural part of the mountain. Only an educated eye can differentiate the engineered landscape from the natural, but everyone can appreciate the grandeur of it. It hasn’t diminished and neither has the struggle to conquer ‘the mountain’.

That this rail line is dramatic and challenging to operate is ultimately a response to the terrain …the landscape. And that is what keeps drawing me back. Sitting atop Kittanning Point, named after the original Indian trail that diverted up the ravine where Horseshoe makes its turn, I can see the formidable barrier these mountains created as well as awe in their beauty. Beauty that is inherent in the land, but also in the creative vision and engineering needed to conquer the Alleghenies.

By the time of Grif Teller’s painting of the curve in 1952, the conquest of the Alleghenies was a given. Instead the depiction is of a vital and busy ‘Broadway’ over the mountains that generates profitable traffic for its stock-holders.


The Golden Curve


  1. Eugene Armer

    I have yet to visit Horseshoe Curve and your writing has helped move it well up my bucket list! A great read and of course, a great shot to end it off. Thank you!

    1. Eric Williams

      Eugene, Horseshoe belongs on every railfan’s bucket list…the volume of trains, the drama of the fight against gravity and the scenery all come together for a memorable location. If you’re up for a hike or two off the the well known locations, you can find some unique shots there as well. I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction!

      1. Eugene Armer

        Thanks Eric, I’ll certainly bear that in mind, I hope to do it some time next year.

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