Preserving rail history: Horseshoe Curve Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society going strong

Mirror file photo This 2017n image shows an aerial view of the Horseshoe Curve. A train rounds the track at the top of the photo, which shows the funicular tracks and walkway to the top of the national historic site.

For 50 years, Blair County residents have preserved and restored the region’s rich railroad history —

when cinders flew from the stacks of steam engines and the red and black cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad rode the rails of the Horseshoe Curve.

The National Railway Historical Society officially chartered its Horseshoe Curve Chapter on May 11, 1968, about three years after six residents responded to an Altoona Mirror advertisement seeking people willing to work toward establishing a railroad museum for Altoona.

Known as the Altoona Railway Museum Club between 1955-68, the goal was to preserve Pennsylvania Railroad heritage and establish a brick-and-mortar museum.

50 years of service

The chapter’s longest, continuously active member with 50 years of service, Altoonan Dave Seidel, 80, worked for the Pennsylva-nia Railroad during its final years as a clerk in the car classification yard in East Altoona.

“Originally, we tried to create awareness of all the industrial heritage that was disappearing,” Seidel recalled recently. “We did historical displays in empty storefronts in downtown.”

Seidel and other club members persevered despite setbacks such as when Commonwealth officials designated Lancaster County as the site of the state railroad museum in 1965.

“Altoona and Blair County seemed a logical site as the the PRR Test Plant along 17th Street remained intact, complete with locomotive test track on which a working steam engine could still be run. The Juniata Shops were also the site of the world’s largest roundhouse,” said Altoonan Leonard Alwine, 66, who serves as the chapter’s historian.

Call for a museum

Momentum increased for a museum under the leadership of the now-deceased Ray Garvin who served as head of the Blair County Tourist and Convention Bureau, and marketing director for Central Counties Bank.

In 1972, Alwine said, for “legal and other reasons,” a separate, nonprofit entity called the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum formed and worked with the Horseshoe Curve Chapter to raise funds and community support.

In 1980, sufficient funds existed to begin construction. Chapter members worked in the yard, building tracks so the museum could display rolling stock.

On Sept. 21, 1980, the new museum’s original building opened and five years later its $500,000 mortgage was retired.

Volunteering

Chapter members are a major part of the volunteer labor force for museum’s maintenance and have purchased, restored and permanently loaned several rail cars to the museum.

“We’re proud of that,” said Francis Givler Jr., club president for the past 31 years. “We planted the seeds to get the museum off the ground and continue to provide support to the museum in various ways.”

During the journey, Seidel has been there taking photos with a small camera kept in his shirt pocket, Givler said.

“Dave was always ready at a moment’s notice and always prepared.”

Givler’s interest in railroading took root as a youngster when he’d visit his grandmother who lived near the Fourth Street rail yard.

“My earliest recollection is watching trains at the Fourth Street footbridge,” he said. “In my teens and 20s I was more into model railroading.”

An auto mechanic, Givler has used his mechanical skills to help repair equipment and rail cars.

“I jumped into it with both feet,” he said.

Alwine’s father worked for the railroad and memories of family trips to the Horseshoe Curve to watch trains navigate the mountains sparked his interest in transportation, especially trolley cars. Alwine’s path intersected with Seidel when he presented local trolley history to the club in 1985.

When the PRR became Penn Central, Seidel “saw the writing on the wall” and changed careers to become a state employee with the Bureau of Employment Security. Ultimately, Penn Central became Conrail in 1975 and then Norfolk Southern.

Through the ownership changes, various high profile industrial sites were torn down, including the Juniata Shop’s famous roundhouse, believed to be the world’s largest locomotive repair turntable.

As the club’s current historian, Alwine recently completed a 50-page book containing 135 photos documenting the members’ sweat equity to preserve rail cars, the Horseshoe Curve and viewing areas, K4 Engine 1341, siding tracks and other artifacts.

New members welcome

Today, The Horseshoe Curve Chapter has about 60 active members and welcomes new members, especially the upcoming generation of railroaders like Nicholas Martino, 17, of Hollidaysburg.

Martino joined the local chapter when he was 9 and founded a spin-off club while a student at Longer Elementary School.

Martino will be a senior at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School this fall and has his sites set on earning a four-year-degree in rail transportation engineering at Penn State Altoona.

The major, according the college’s web site, offers students “the in-depth engineering and mathematics education required to meet the challenges facing today’s railroad industry.”

The Horseshoe Curve Chapter awards two $500 scholarships each year to Penn State students in RTE and an additional two scholarships to send local members to the NRHS’s rail camp.

“The rail industry needs talented help,” Seidel said, explaining how modern computer technology has advanced signalling communications and engine controls.

When the NRHS offers its rail camps, the Horseshoe Curve Chapter has paid the tuition for eight different rail supporters to attend, including Martino, Givler said.

“The people we’ve sent have all come back with a very positive outlook about railroading,” he added.

Martino attended a seven-day NRHS Rail Camp last summer where he toured an active rail locomotive shop, rode a high speed train, visited the main dispatching center for the railway corridor between New York City and Washington, D.C., and laid ties and rails at the Strasburg Steam Engine locomotive yard.

“We had students from as far away as L.A. and Seattle,” Martino said. “We also got to ride in the engineer’s area of a steam locomotive — that was definitely a highpoint for everyone. The camp was a mix of the new and the old rail technology.”

He also shared his love for Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve by sharing with his fellow students a live stream on YouTube showing trains navigating the Horseshoe Curve and boasted about the RTE program at Penn State.

Such youthful enthusiasm will direct the club’s next 50 years, agreed Alwine and Seidel.

“People Nick’s age will be preserving the diesel engines and the rail cars,” Alwine said. “Really, we are preserving our memories of our childhood — the steam engines and the PRR. Nick’s generation will preserve diesels and AMTRAK coaches. It makes you remember and re-live what you did as a kid.”

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030..

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