Altoona's most disastrous fire in terms of property damage occurred Dec. 27, 1931, in the machine shops area of the Pennsylvania Railroad's complex.
The shop occupied part of a 23-acre plot, known as the Altoona Works, that extended from 11th Street to 16th Street and from Ninth to 10th avenues.
PRR buildings with 671,392 square feet of floor space covered 15 of the acres and employed 5,100 men.
The tight cluster of the buildings in the machine shops section near 12th Street and Ninth Avenue aided the spread of the fire that Sunday in December.
The shops were closed for the Christmas vacation, and only a token force of workers was on duty.
The Dec. 28, 1931, Altoona Mirror reported, "At 9:10 a.m. watchman David C. Irwin discovered the fire which had already reached a tremendous scope within the two-story building housing the Journal Box, Bolt Shop and Stores Departments."
Irwin reported the fire to the PRR's No. 7 Fire Station at Ninth Avenue and 12th Street. However, the fire, fueled by the oil-soaked wooden floors of the Journal Box and Bolt Shops, was already out of control and spreading to adjacent buildings.
The PRR's fire marshal immediately sent out a general alarm and called for help from the Altoona Fire Department, which dispatched every available man and piece of firefighting equipment to the scene.
The fire spread to Erecting Shops One and Two and to the four-story brick building housing the Machine and Air Brake Shops, which was located between them. The fire destroyed the two-story building where it started and left the Machine and Air Brake Shops and the two Erecting Shop buildings in ruins.
The fire was brought under control by mid-afternoon. Miraculously, there were no fatalities or serious injuries.
The more than a dozen men who received minor injuries or suffered from smoke inhalation were treated in a dispensary set up in the PRR Fire Station No. 7 by PRR Dr. H.S. Saylor and Nurse Flemming.
Fire companies from Hollidaysburg, Cresson and Lakemont responded and a pumper from Johnstown aided in fighting the blaze.
In addition, more than 100 PRR employees volunteered to help fight the blaze.
Property loss was estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million. This estimate included tools that were the personal property of workers.
Works' Manager F.G. Grimshaw developed a plan whereby the 1,037 men employed in the now destroyed machine shops would be transferred to other areas. Work resumed in the Altoona Works on Jan. 4, 1932.
The 12th Street Bridge, which was only a few yards from one wall of the Machine Shop building, never caught on fire, but its flooring and railings were damaged by falling debris.
The bridge was closed until repairs were completed and the wall of the Machine Shop building was razed.
The buildings destroyed were the oldest or the immediate successors of the original shops erected in Altoona.
Even after months of careful investigation, the cause of the fire was never determined. The PRR had its own insurance agency and covered the entire loss.
The destroyed buildings were never rebuilt, and the area they occupied became the site of a large overhead crane and an outside wielding and riveting work area.
Three buildings that escaped the fire are all that remain of the Altoona machine shops: the Master Mechanic's Building, which houses the Railroaders Memorial Museum; the Tank Shop, now owned by the Altoona Pipe and Steel Co.; and the PRR No. 7 Fire Co., which now houses Altoona Pipe and Steel's offices.
There is very little left to remind us of the PRR and its impact on our city's history.
The generation old enough to remember traversing the old 12th Street Bridge and seeing the flash of the welder's arc and hearing the staccato "tat-tat-tat" of the riveter's hammer are well into the autumn of their lives.
Even the name, Pennsylvania Railroad Company, once the standard against which all other railroads were measured, has passed into history.
John Conlon lives in Altoona.