Keeping the Water On at Horseshoe Curve

Back in the days of steam power, hard working boilers needed a constant and ready supply of water. Water tanks were located along the right of way where the railroad determined they would be needed and convenient. One such water tank was actually located on Horseshoe Curve, adjacent to the long-gone Kittanning Point station on the east end of the curve. That tank is just one component of a large system that fed water to thirsty locomotives climbing the East Slope. However, the tank itself needed a steady supply of water and it was delivered from a holding reservoir that I recently visited.

Gravity is the most efficient way to move water and the Pennsylvania Railroad built a dam and reservoir system on the east slope of the Alleghany Ridge to supply tanks on that side of the mountain. A dam was constructed near the Portage Railroad Historical site which diverted water to a holding reservoir near where the present MG Tower stands, a distance of about 5 miles. This reservoir is located about 150 yards off the roadbed and was built around 1906. From it, water flowed down grade about 2 miles into the tank at Kittanning Point.

On the east end of Horseshoe Curve stood a coaling and water station for servicing locomotives heading both directions on the mountain. The water spouts split both sets of tracks and can be turned to serve either. The overhead structure with what appears to be water spouts are actually coal chutes. In the distance is the Kittanning Point Station built to allow tourists to visit Horseshoe Curve. Photo from the collection of William “Bill” E. Burket

PRR Kittanning Point Holding Reservoir Drawing (1906)

Mark Glenn, president of Gwin, Dobson & Foreman Engineers was kind enough to send me the attached PRR drawing of the reservoir, surrounding railings and gatehouse, which piqued my interest. The Kittanning Point water tank was removed in the late 1930’s, so it would be 80 years or so since the reservoir and gatehouse were last called to duty by the railroad. The gatehouse was my draw to the site as I liked the design of the roof and wanted to discover if it still stood and offered up any interesting photographic possibilities.

I drove up the dirt road that led to MG tower and found the trail I had marked on my map that would hopefully lead me straight to the tank. While I diverted off the trail more than a few times as I spotted features that turned out to be illusions, the trail did in fact lead to the location. Not knowing what I would find, my anticipation and excitement levels were quite high as I made my way through the woods and finally sighted the earth berm of the reservoir through the trees. From my approach, the berm was only about 5 feet tall and I easily walked onto the top rim. I followed the oval rim around, noting that due to the changing hill slope, the berm grew to about 25 feet off the natural land profile at the center. When I got to the mid-point of the reservoir berm, below me stood the gate house. The roof was missing, which was disappointing but not unexpected, as it was noted in the drawing to be terra-cotta tile, supported by a wood frame construction and I had figured it would be first to decay. The castle style crenellations were curious to me as I didn’t know if it was designed that way to support the wood frame or a later change. Back home, Mark informed me that this is the original construction, which was a design change that was widespread for similar structures built by the PRR in the vicinity.

Atop the berm with the gatehouse below.

the Gate House

An underground valve marker – downhill of the gate house

The reservoir berm has held up just as well as the gate house, with no visible erosion or damage – obviously well engineered and built to last by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At one time the entire berm was surrounded by a typical PRR style fence, but only a few sections have managed to survive the years and not rust away.

A few sections remain of the surrounding fence. Typical PRR design.

The forest has encroached on the berm and into the reservoir over the past 60 years since this facility was last maintained. While I can clearly delineate the features with my eyes, the camera is fooled and my photographs don’t capture the place well. I feel that better photographs can be made here. Perhaps in the winter – with snow on the ground, I’ll come back.

The mostly dry water basin and earth berm.

Inside the gatehouse

While this post is about the Pennsylvania Railroad reservoir system, it’s difficult to image the curve without the “other” reservoir that it envelops. This short video puts it all in perspective. The introductory image is mine!


  1. LauraLynn Yohe

    Congratulations on an excellent production! I’m a freelance writer and do historic research on deeds as well. The need for facts and accuracy are so vital to the record of the past for future readers. You’ve taken a great deal of time and effort on this amazing facet of Horseshoe Curve and I’m very impressed. Thanks so much for sharing your findings. Those magnificent old hills have wonderful treasures within them, and stories to tell. Thank you for all your hard work!

    1. Eric Williams

      LauraLynn, so much of our industrial past has been lost to the elements or to history itself. I never knew this reservoir existing until someone brought it to my attention and I’m glad I can bring it to others. The reservoir served an important, but unheralded, function for decades at the curve and it deserves not to be forgotten.

      Please direct me to some of your writings as well!

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