The Horseshoe Curve

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Historic image of horseshoe curve

Manuscript Group 218: Photograph Collections, Cecil C. Fulton, Jr. Photograph Collection. "Horse Shoe, Photographic Views on the Penn'a Central Rail Road, Purviance, Photographer, Phila. James S. Earle & Sons, 816 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, General Agents for the Publisher." 5 1/2" X 7" albumen photographic print, ca. 1858.

When England's King Charles II created the colony that he named Pennsylvania in 1681, he had little knowledge of its geography. Proceeding from east to west, it was divided into three major topographical units. In the southeastern corner were the low rolling hills of the Piedmont Plateau. The Appalachian Mountains rose to heights of over 3,000 feet above sea level in the central area. West of the mountains were high ridges and deep valleys. The area's major rivers--the Delaware, Susquehanna, and Allegheny--ran from north to south.

Pennsylvania's topography made the east-west movement of people and products difficult. Because the indigenous people and early European inhabitants seldom traveled all the way across the area, the terrain caused them few problems. Most of their movements were comparatively local. The American Indians often followed pathways developed from animal trails. These were no more than a foot or two wide and were located on ridges when possible, usually avoiding wooded ravines and narrow valleys that could become swampy in the spring and fall, often filled with snow in the winter, and occasionally hid enemies. The Europeans later developed some of these trails into roads that led them into the interior.

From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, these roads were the major overland transportation arteries. By the late Colonial period, spokes pointed from the hub at Philadelphia north, northwest, and west. Numerous feeders from farms and grain mills joined them along the way. As the population increased and the commercial economy grew, roads extended farther into the interior. By 1820, the "Pennsylvania Road" reached Pittsburgh. All but a few of the state's roads were mere dirt paths in which large stones and tree trunks remained to obstruct traffic.

Canals seemed to offer smoother transportation. The completion of the Erie Canal joining New York City and the Midwest in 1825 inspired Pennsylvania's legislators to authorize the construction of a somewhat similar system of east-west waterways that became known as the State Works. Beginning in 1826, a canal proceeded from Columbia along the Susquehanna River to Clark's Ferry where an aqueduct carried it across to the Juniata. The eastern portion of the canal ended at the foot of the mountains west of Hollidaysburg. From the west at Pittsburgh, the canal ran along the Allegheny and Kiskiminetas Rivers. A series of inclined railways carried the canal boats across the mountains. The system began cross-state operation in 1834. Although the State Works improved east-west transportation, the system was defective. Traffic jams developed at the locks. The canals froze in the winter and flooded in the spring. Travel over the mountains in boats on flatbed railcars, pulled first by mules and then stationary steam engines, was lengthy and hazardous. Consequently, forward-looking Pennsylvanians sought a better means of traversing the state.

In 1838, a convention to urge the construction of a continuous railroad from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh assembled in Harrisburg and appointed Charles Schlatter to survey the route. He recommended a route that ran along the Juniata River in the east and the Conemaugh in the west. They became the major sections of the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line. In slightly more than a decade, the eastern section of the railroad reached Duncansville, just beyond Hollidaysburg. The western portion was completed to a point near Johnstown in 1852. Nevertheless, to cross the mountains, passengers and freight still depended on the slow and dangerous state-owned Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Chief engineer and later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, John Edgar Thomson, raised the funds and designed the solution to the problem which was to lay tracks on which trains could cross the mountains directly. The route that he chose proceeded west of Altoona where it rose 122 feet at a practical grade of less than 2% that a train of average length could manage with a helper locomotive. In order to construct this line, Thomson hired Irish laborers from Counties Cork, Mayo and Antrim who lived in camps along the way. They worked with the only tools available at that time--picks and shovels--to cut away the front of a mountain to form a ledge on which they could place the tracks that appear in the image by William T. Purviance made around 1858. The soil and rocks that they removed were hauled in mule-drawn carts to fill two deep intervening ravines on either side of the center of the curve that a careful look at the photograph reveals. The tracks went up the eastern side of the mountain, turned left to cross the valleys to the western side where they turned left again. The result resembled a horseshoe, which is obvious in the photograph.

The opening of the Horseshoe Curve on February 15, 1854, was the climax of numerous efforts during the previous century to develop a comparatively rapid and inexpensive method of joining the East and West through Pennsylvania. Travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was reduced from four days on the State Works to approximately fifteen hours. Initially, the cost was lower, as well. The rails' conquest of the mountains enabled the Pennsylvania Railroad to form alliances with other lines so that by the 1880s it had reached the midwestern cities of Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago. During the first half of the 1900s, the Horseshoe Curve was considered, along with the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, and the Bay Bridge at San Francisco, one of the engineering "Wonders of the World."

In time, the Horseshoe Curve became not only a vital link in the nation's transportation system, but also a tourist attraction. Pennsylvania Railroad officials promoted interest by requiring conductors to notify passengers that they were approaching the curve and featuring it on the covers of its calendars, annual reports, and other publicity. In 1865, they built a station on its eastern side at least partly for passengers who wanted to pause at the Curve. They beautified the area in 1879 by planting flowers and building a watchman's shack in the form of a Swiss cottage. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago contained a model of the Curve that led curious passengers to board trains that rounded the area. With the increase in automobile traffic, sightseers drove to the park that had developed nearby. In 1932, the state's highway department placed a hard surface on the road to the curve and dedicated it with a "500-car motorcade." Because of the public's continuing interest, in 1967, the National Park Service named the Horseshoe Curve a National Historic Site.

Its officials in the early 1990s worked with the state government, the "Pennsy's" successor, Conrail, and other agencies to develop the site by constructing new highways, an exhibit building, gift shop, and inclined plane to carry visitors up the mountain to the point where they can watch passing trains at close range. Still an important transportation artery connecting eastern and western sections of the state and nation, and a significant tribute to the vigorous efforts of engineers and laborers, the Horseshoe Curve has become one of Pennsylvania's most popular historic landmarks viewed by hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the United States and many foreign countries.