"Helpers at Altoona"

An excerpt from Railroading In America Magazine, Edition 8

   Many great things start as something small, or evolve other ideas. As a senior in high school, many doors were now open, and several important life decisions have to be made. The most important and obvious thing that needs to be considered is college. What I want to do for the next four years, and possibly for the rest of my life has to be decided now. While it can be a bit overwhelming at times, it’s also exciting. College visits can be educational and informative. Students can get a feel for the campus and their desired academic majors. While these elements are purpose of college visits, excuses to travel somewhere you would otherwise not be able to go to start to arise. In my case, when I discovered a Railway Transportation Engineering (RTE) program at Penn State Altoona, I knew I had found the perfect trip. Altoona is a world-famous railroad city and is on the bucket list of almost every railfan and is home to Norfolk Southern’s Juniata Shops, Rose Yard, the Railroaders Memorial Museum, and Horseshoe curve. What else could anyone ask for? So, as any eager railfan/student would, I booked a visit and a hotel for my family and I. As they say, two is better than one, but what’s better than two? Three, of course! I instantly called some of my closest friends, Jonah Collins and Max Harris, and invited them to accompany me after my college visit. My invitation was accepted, and Jonah even joined me on my visit, as he was also a senior and very interested in what Penn State Altoona had to offer. Max elected join us later in the afternoon, and we would were to pick him up after his arrival on the westbound Pennsylvanian. As the weeks prior drug on and on, the date of departure finally arrived. After the long, 6-hour drive, I set foot on Altoona soil.

   Jonah and I’s visit to Penn State’s Altoona campus was a notable one. The campus was just gorgeous, with many shade trees and landscaping in abundance. Faculty was very friendly and knowledgeable, and a meeting with one of the RTE professors was very informative and interesting. After the visit, it was train time. Jonah and I grabbed a bite to eat and grabbed our cameras before setting out for the Railroaders Memorial Museum. While at the museum, Jonah and I unexpectedly ran into one of my friends from Columbus. After conversing back and forth, our trio went through the indoor visits and displays. I have to say, the museum has done a phenomenal job keeping its visitors engaged. Everything from movies to an interactive hump yard control board kept my mind in awe, and I found myself almost unable to capture every single piece of information. I wasn’t the only one who needed a brain break, so outside we went. The imposing Harry Bennett Memorial Roundhouse demanded our attention, and two doors were the only things separated us from the famous Pennsylvania Railroad K4s #1361. Despite the artifact being in pieces, the anticipation was so tense that it could have been cut with a knife. Once we entered, several things besides the K4 sitting in the rightmost stall wasn’t the only artifact that piqued my interest. Other items included an authentic observation car named Mountain View, and an elegantly restored Railway Express Agency delivery truck. I ended up staying in the roundhouse longer than Jonah and Garrett, and I conducted an extensive visual inspection of the state of 1361, and took several interesting photographs of the lesser-known aspects of the museum. After my time in the roundhouse, I ventured outside and viewed the other pieces of railroading history with the other members of my group. A GG1 and saddle tank steam locomotive were the highlights of the collection that was relegated to outdoor display. The sun started to set, and Max’s arrival time of 5:18 PM was creeping closer and closer. So, we left the museum behind and anticipated the wide array of events that were about to unfold.

   With our cameras readied, we found a westbound freight train ducking under the pedestrian bridge that was adjacent to the Amtrak Station. Endless freight trains continued to rumble in each direction, and soon enough, at 5:18, P42 #125 rounds the bend and meets the luminance of the setting sun. After snapping some quick photos, I rushed to greet Max, and after our initial handshake and greeting, our group is surprised to find out two things: The first piece of news that Max informed us with was that NS 4000, the first DC/AC conversion unit, was directly behind Max’s Amtrak train. The second piece of news was that Max had spotted NS 8520, which was a brand new AC44C6CF, which was a rebuild a D-940CW. This unit was just announced by Norfolk Southern moments before, so we would be some of the first railfans to set eyes on this gorgeous locomotive. With 4000 right behind us, the four of us moved to hustle to the crossing at Brickyard Road, which is just west of downtown Altoona. The moment we got there, we all darted up the embankment that lies just to the left of the triple track mainline. Not to our surprise, several other railfans that were in the area flocked to the crossing to greet the “bluebonnet” on her journey west. As time passed, the only sound that could be heard was the surrounding bird singing their beautiful songs. Eventually, a strange-sounding horn was sounded from a far distance. Three GE prime movers were being pushed to their limits as 4000 finally meandered around the curve and into our field of view. A seemingly endless stream of camera shutters releasing was in the air as the congregation of railfans got their own shots from a wide array of angles. Personally, I was grateful for the splash of blue, as it was a welcomed change from Norfolk Southern’s famous black and white livery, which was almost becoming monotonous by this point. Once the train faded into the sunset, an Altoona-bound intermodal snuck up on us as it headed down the miles of the infamous slope.

   After checking for any more sneak-up trains, Horseshoe Curve presented itself as our next destination. Since the curve was closing shortly, pep was put into our step was we hustled west. The numerous and long flights of stairs didn’t agree well with my legs, but I made it up in one piece. From the moment I laid eyes on the curve, there was no doubt in my mind as to why it was considered to be a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The curve was just incomprehensibly massive, and the efforts of the original and current track gangs can really be appreciated. My pondering was soon to be interrupted however, by an eastbound intermodal, lead by none other than NS 1067, also known as the Reading heritage unit. I clumsily got my gear together and aimed my shutter at the locomotive. Once the sun slipped under the Alleghenies, our desire for dinner overcame the urge to photograph the limitless sets of helpers drifting down the mountain. With bellies full of pizza and energy renewed, we set off for the Juniata locomotive shops, which is where NS performs the majority of their locomotive repair and rebuilds. Light was becoming scarce, but nevertheless we observed tank cars being switched at the adjacent Union Tank Car company plant, as well as other shop related activities. The newest special unit from NS was also spotted just outside the paint shop, along with the famous quartet of F7s in charge of Norfolk Southern’s Office Car Special. It was during this time where I first laid eyes on 8520. We tried to get presentable images, but the chain link fence and the darkening sky did not cooperate with us. As a result, the hotel soon appeared to be the best option. We then retired to our respective rooms for the night, and got some rest before conquering the day ahead.

   To my dismay, that next morning proved to be cool and cloudy. Max and I got our breakfast at sunrise, and set out to start the day. Our first destination was Alto Tower, which is an Altoona landmark (to railfans at least). The now-deactivated tower sits just past the start of the steep gradient out of town. A signal bridge is nearby and visible from an overpass which has a sidewalk. Just as we stepped up onto the sidewalk, we heard an eastbound rolling downgrade. Our sprint to photograph this particular train must have been quite comedic, as you would expect from two people carrying large camera bags. The sprint was worthwhile, as a very ominous storm cloud was rolling in, but the morning sunlight hit the train with a majestic glow. Only one other train passed, 17G. Luckily, Max had a scanner on hand, and we managed to listen in on the crew of 17G as it called its westbound signal. Upon the passing of 17G, we encountered some sprinkles, and the eastbound Pennsylvanian was due in town soon. Since this train was Max’s ride home, we headed for depot. I accompanied Max on the station platform while he waited for his train to arrive. All too soon, the Pennsylvanian squealed to the stop. Before Max boarded, we took a selfie, and then he disappeared into his respective Amfleet coach. I waved to Max as the train departed, and I was to be on my own for a short moment. This moment proved to be bittersweet, as my time with one of my great friends was ending. On the contrary, the “finale” of my visit to Altoona was about to begin.

   Once I departed the hotel room for the last time, Jonah and I piled into his van, and set out for Hollidaysburg, which is a suburb of Altoona. 15 minutes passed before the Everett Railroad’s depot and a light smoke stream came into view. With cameras ready, Jonah and I started to snap some portraits of a 1920 graduate of the world-famous American Locomotive Company. This compact 2-6-0 “Mogul” #11 is the pride and joy of the Everett, and can be seen on the point of several excursion trains throughout the year. During our visit, a one hour, 4 mile family excursion to Hollidaysburg to Brookes Mills was running. A special 8 mile Ice Cream Train to Roaring Springs was in order for the latter part of the day, but we did not partake in this excursion. Since chasing trains is more my speed than Jonah’s, I followed the family excursion to several locations while Jonah staked out in the baggage car directly behind the locomotive. Therefore, between the two of us, we got the best of both worlds. Once #11 whistled off, I raced the train to the curved trestle near River road. The clouds and lighting as a whole was not on my side for the chase, but as a photographer, one must be able to adjust to all sorts of conditions. The very second I selected my desired location, a steam whistle could be heard approaching at a leisurely pace. Following the whistle, came a plume of smoke and steam shot up above the trees, and finally the locomotive in its entirety. Due to the sweeping curve, the train looked as graceful as a swan. After all, that’s why I chose this location as spot number one. Once the final car disappeared, I once again booked it to the second and final destination on my short chase. I really must like curves, since I set up my tripod adjacent to an extra wide curve at Monastery road. Unlike the previous location, time was in abundance here, so I held a conversation with a fellow photographer, who was very skilled. In the distance, a barking exhaust could be heard, and was approaching at a steady pace. For this shot, I opted for a low angle, which made the locomotive appear more imposing and large. My shutter soon was clicking away as the Mogul shook the ground and sprayed cinders into the air. Jonah gave a friendly wave as he rolled past, and his ear-to-ear smile was a fair indicator of his enjoyment. Instead of leaving again to go to another location, I stayed put, since a shot of the locomotive running tender first was a point of interest to me. In the midst of my adrenaline rush, the thought of lunch was put on the backburner. My appetite soon overcame my head, and I sat right where I was and ate some Arby’s while waiting for any sign of a train. Armed with a full stomach and renewed energy, I was ready. A mournful sound emanated behind a curtain of trees, and I put my eye to the viewfinder at just the tender swept into view. Those tall pine trees framed the engine, which made for an impressive image. By now, the engineer recognized me, and gave a few extra blasts on the whistle and a smile as he brought his train back through town. When the conductor in the last car slipped into the canopy of trees, my action-packed weekend came to a close.

   From meeting lots of great individuals to taking in some of the most scenic vistas in Pennsylvania, I am beyond grateful to be apart of this exceptional hobby that we call railroading. Endless memories and relationships have sprouted from one tiny seed that was planted when I was seven months old. Now, I have a few hundred photographs and countless memories to serve as a testimony to those two hot days in one of the hottest places for railfans: Altoona, Pennsylvania.