Falling in Love with Trains in Altoona
The Station Inn B&B in Cresson, outside Altoona is not your typical B&B. It’s missing a lot of what you’d expect- no period antique furniture, floral swags on the wall, porcelain dolls in carriages, or lace curtains. There are no air conditioners, Jacuzzis, in-room televisions, phones, or Wi-Fi and no fitness center. There’s not even a king, queen nor a double bed in the whole inn- instead, twenty-two twins furnish the seven rooms.
What The Station Inn does have is a front row seat for some of the best train viewing in Pennsylvania. We’ll start with the sixty foot long front porch. Thirty viewing chairs (many rockers) line the wooden porch. They face the three parallel train tracks across the small blacktop road, 150 feet away. In front of the chairs is a long bench-like table with radio scanners, clipboards and journals. The scanners are typically turned on to the railroad radio frequencies so visitors can eavesdrop on the dispatchers and engineers at the local Cresson train yard. Cameras are set up on tripods. Retired men, mostly rail enthusiasts fill the chairs, often with RR caps on. These are serious train buffs. They have developed porch sitting and train watching to an art.
In front of the inn is the former main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, now owned by Norfolk Southern. Three parallel tracks produce considerable entertainment as the JR Corman Coal Company brings cars down to this extremely busy transfer site, as well as freight powering through on its way to the east and west coasts, and perhaps onward to Japan and China. Some are heading for scrap, to that “Hopper in the Sky.” Sometimes all three tracks are occupied. Then, the railroad fans are beside themselves.
There could be up to 75 trains passing by in a day including long coal cars with helper engines, covered hopper cars, tank cars, and double stacked containers. The coal companies bring coal cars down and drop them right in front of the inn and wait for Norfolk Southern to pick them up. The rail fans keep track of engines,models, and ages. The fans listen religiously to the dispatcher and anxiously await what train is being announced by the dispatcher. The engineers are required to call out the train’s number, the track they are riding on, the direction they are traveling and what the signal indication is. Some freight trains take 15 minutes to pass by the inn.
The Station Inn was built back in 1866 as an economy resort hotel for those travelers coming to and from Pittsburgh. Tom Davis, a retired school teacher owns it since 1993. Ever since he was a kid, Tom has been a train fan so he is the perfect host for his fanatical guests.
In the common reading room are historical photos and train memorabilia covering the walls and shelves. If the track activity is slow, you can watch train wreck videos or scenic train rides in the big black cushioned office chairs, while you pop a cookie in your mouth, (sign reads, “Life is hard. Cookies help”), a pretzel or a Mallo Cup, made locally.
During the day, Tom’s guests typically head out to different places in the area to view and photograph trains. “Trains behave differently at different locations,” they tell me. Horseshoe Curve is the most famous observation point so I decide to head over there myself for a look.
This 3,485 foot curve of tracks bends 220 degrees and is 1,300 feet at its widest. You can view this amazing engineering feat by either climbing the 194-step stairway above the on-site visitors center or (in season) riding the 288-foot high funicular. Over fifty freight trains thunder around the curve every day, not including locals. Sometimes, three trains simultaneously negotiate the curve at the same time.
The interactive Railroader’s Memorial Museum is perhaps one of the most entertaining and captivating museums of any kind I have ever been in. Every aspect of life connecting to railroading is covered: the city, community, at home, the bar, etc. The exhibits immerse you in a place and a time as people from the past interact with you. My favorite is Kelly’s Bar where you actually go into a room in the museum that has been converted to look like a bar room with actual tiled floor, tin ceiling, bar tables and stools at the bar. Behind the bar is a screen where a bartender appears and talks with you, as a worker getting off your shift in the rail yard. Other exhibits allow you to take part in the precision testing labs, or test your skill at fast-paced track switching, etc.
Another great place to learn is the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, 12 miles west of Altoona- also a technological wonder of its time, albeit a bit earlier than Horseshoe Curve. This inclined plane railroad operated between 1834-1854 and actually lifted train canal boats over the obstacle of the Allegheny Mountains, one at a time. These boats, weighing an average of 7,000 pounds each were raised nearly fourteen hundred feet using hemp rope initially, then steel cable. This rope ran for one mile and if it snapped, it could be lethel. The portage railroad was the last link in the Pittsburgh to Philadelphia route and was part of the Mainline Canal system. Had it not been built, the only other option at the time was adding 150 miles of track as it follows a branch of the Susquehanna River.
There is the Summit Level Visitor Center to check out, the historic Lemon House, where merchants and travelers waited for the canal boats to be lifted and enjoyed a meal and conversation, the Engine House #6 Exhibit Shelter, the Skew Arch Bridge, as well as the Staple Bend Tunnel located 4 miles east of Johnstown, PA. The tunnel is the first railroad tunnel built in the United States.
Inside the Engine House is a reconstructed full scale model of the machinery that was used to hoist up the canal boats. This metal look-alike machinery is actually ingeniously handcrafted by local woodworker, Fred Connacher, all out of plywood and PVC and painted.
You can further explore the historic routes and get some exercise at the same time by following the “6 to 10 Trail.” This 10 mile long trail system traces the route of the Allegheny Portage Railroad as it passes the ten incline planes that lifted passengers, canal boats and goods.
Also in the area is the picturesque sixteen mile long multi-use Lower Trail. It utilizes the path of the abandoned Petersburg Branch of the old Pennsylvania Railroad and is built on the canal right away. Along the way are historic grist mills, locks and lock-works, and old foundations to explore. The bike shop, Pedal Power in downtown Altoona, rents bikes as well as cross-country skis if you happen to visit the area in the snowy winter months.
If you want to reach even further back in history while you stretch your limbs, climb to the top of Chimney Rocks outside town. Native Americans used the upright standing rock pinnacles in pre-Colonial times as a look-out for approaching white settlers. A commanding view of the Allegheny Mountains and the valley below helps put the historic railroad and canal routes into perspective. This short, easy climb has been a rite-of-passage for Altoona’s young folks. The community revitalization project includes a picnic area to accompany the trails and is part of an environmental stewardship program.
All this touring and exercise works up quite an appetite so head for Tom & Joe’s Diner in downtown Altoona which dates back to 1933. A vintage wooden screen door invites you into the welcoming family-run diner where over a delicious meal you can listen to, you guessed it, “Do the Locomotion” on the tableside jukebox.
For dessert, make a stop at the Boyer Candy Factory where you can indulge in free samples, then purchase imperfect seconds of the famous Mallo Cup. This whipped marshmallow and coconut, chocolate- covered patty dates back to 1936. An entire case can be purchased for a fraction of the cost and stashed in the freezer.
If you need a break from history, there is the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art to wander about and try to catch a show at the exquisitely restored historic Mishler Theatre. The Altoona Community Theatre performs here as well as the Altoona Symphony and the Allegheny Ballet Company.
After a full day of train history, I head back to the Station Inn to chat with the guests and usher in the evening.
They tell me that the coal cars coming down out of the Allegheny Mountains is most likely headed for the steel mills in Ohio and Indiana and that a long coal train of 120 cars means business is good…and how to hear the difference between the rattling sound of an empty train and the straining sound of a loaded one.
By spending time at The Station Inn and exploring Altoona, I have come to learn a little more about my beautiful state of Pennsylvania and appreciate its rich railroading history, as well as its current railroading enterprises.
Watching trains can continue into the night here at The Station Inn. A flashlight, a pair of ear plugs and a clipboard at each bedside makes this easier.
On winter nights, when the ground is frozen and it can’t absorb the shock, the heavy freight trains shake the whole inn. They wake you from your slumber and tempt you to peer out the window at the passing spectacle. To a train buff, it is music to your ears.
You don’t need to be in love with trains to come to The Station Inn or Altoona, although nearly everyone is. You can come to love something after you’ve spent considerable time in its company, saw its gifts, learned about it. Trains could do that to you here in Altoona.
The Station Inn
Allegheny Mountains Convention & Visitor’s Bureau
(a version of this appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine)
Posted in: Pennsylvania Magazine, Travel Story
Wondering if I can share this story link on my website. I’ve been in that area. The reason I bought a mountain bike was to get to trackside locations along The middle division.
I now own my own bicycle repair shop and specialize in touring and event support. I also produce a tv show on PAC TV called Gillys world. You can find Gillys world on you tube. Anyway, I bet there is some good bicycling potential in this area.
hi Dave- sure- can you link it? IF you cut and paste just make sure to mention that it first appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine. Thanks!