Exploring Wopsy: Trains to the top of the mountain ran for three decades

Shortly after Elaine Conrad and her husband, Tom, moved into a rental house on top of Wopsononock Mountain in 1972, a neighbor casually mentioned that a hotel once stood in her backyard and a train ran through the front.

Conrad’s family ended up building a house nearby and living there for 40 years, and she began researching the history of that short-lived resort and railroad.

Today, she is considered the “ultimate authority” on the subject, said Jared Frederick, a Penn State Altoona history instructor and president of the board of the Blair County Historical Society.

Conrad will share her information, along with scads of photographs and old newspaper articles, at the historical society’s Baker Mansion History Museum at 7 p.m. on Aug. 23.

It is part of the ongoing lecture series that the society kicked off earlier this year, which has become so popular that some events are standing room only, said Joe DeFrancesco, executive director.

Frederick said learning about the history of this area through the lecture series is “just a really great way to connect people to the place.

“I’m familiar with several Wopsy stories,” he added, using the shortened nickname for the mountain. “But what I know on the subject doesn’t hold a candle to (Conrad’s) knowledge.”

Conrad has lived her whole life in Blair County, having grown up in Claysburg. But she didn’t know the history of the Wopsy resort and the trains that took Altoonans there until she moved there.

Like those travelers at the turn of the century, Conrad was there for the view, which is just “spectacular,” and the temperature, which is 6 to 7 degrees cooler than down the mountain, she said. With three young boys afoot, she needed a distraction and started digging into the history of where she lived.

“I became fascinated,” said Conrad, crediting the late Altoona Mirror librarian Esther Barnes with opening newspaper archives. “When I started it, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

It took her decades to find hundreds of stories, photographs, advertisements and anecdotes, most of it compiled in tidy binders. Perhaps had she waited some years, Google and online newspaper databases would have made it easier.

“Now, you just type in Wopsononock and you can get a lot of information, including old ads about the resort,” she said. “They ran ads in big city newspapers, and people came from Pittsburgh and further.”

One ad from 1896 advertised round trips from a depot in Juniata for 25 cents.

Conrad also went to trade shows, flea markets and the like for memorabilia on anything Wopsy related.

Once, she spent $20 on a photo postcard, and it has become one of her favorites. She had it enlarged, and it will be on display at the lecture. While her husband was a “good sport” and supporter of her research, she didn’t tell him for years how much she paid for that penny postcard.

A graduate of Penn State, Conrad worked various jobs teaching, working public relations at Altoona Hospital — shooting photos of newborns and physician services — and as a stay-at-home mother for a time.

She formally retired in 2001, and stepped up her volunteering with the Blair County Genealogical Society, begun years earlier when it acquired microfilm of the area’s old newspapers. You can still find her there usually once a week.

Conrad was sidelined for a time after Tom — her sounding board — died in 2008. She stayed on Wopsy for another three years before downsizing and moving to town. It was another couple of years before she gathered herself to resume her lifelong project, and Frederick asked her to make a presentation at Penn State Altoona. She did and continues to make regular presentations.

Conrad cannot contain her enthusiasm for Wopsy.

“I have a love for that place,” she said. “When you see how many thousands of people visited there in that short period of time … you can see why.”

Altoona business owners and railroad executives got together and built the hotel, which opened in July 1889. Within two years, narrow-gauge tracks had been laid and train service started.

“Back in the 1890s, people didn’t travel very far,” Conrad explained. “And if you worked the railroad, and a lot of people did, you had a railroad pass. You could go to the top of the mountain by train.”

The resort itself was plush for the day: The three-story hotel had 60 rooms and a fine restaurant. Patrons could play lawn tennis, baseball, dance and engage in other activities, and there was a large playground for children.

At one time there was a carousel in the edge of the woods. It was put in a storage barn in the off-season, including in 1903, when a nearby forest fire spread to the hotel and destroyed it and the merry-go-round.

A century later, Conrad found old concrete pillars marking the carousel’s spot.

Despite the hotel’s demise, people kept going up the mountain to escape the city heat. Churches regularly had their summer picnics up there.

“On a hot muggy day downtown, that’s what you did,” she said. “You went up the mountain.”

You can no longer get their by train — the railroad excursion met its demise in 1919 as more people acquired automobiles and “started going further, to the beach, to new venues,” Conrad said.

But the area is popular today with hunters and hikers — a popular trail is off Lookout Road, and State Game Lands are nearby. You also can drive to the end of Lookout Road — its road sign recently was missing, so look for a bunch of broadcast towers to the right as you’re driving up Wopsy Road.

You can look out across Logan Valley toward the western face of Brush Mountain, and perhaps imagine an earlier time when this was the place to be.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.