By John Conlon
"After long delays, Altoona, at last, is to have a city park." With these words, the Altoona Mirror on Aug. 17, 1907, reported on the results of a civic project long in the works.
The park was to be developed atop Gospel Hill.
Preliminary work already had started - a contract to grade and terrace the apex of the hill at a cost of 87 cents per square foot had been let and an assortment of 75 trees had been purchased from local florist, A. Whitbred, and planted.
In addition, Altoona's U.S. Rep. J.M. Reynolds had petitioned the federal government for cannons to be used as ornaments.
Dedication ceremonies for Gospel Hill City Park were held Oct. 19, 1907. Many state and local dignitaries were in attendance as well as a large crowd of people, including hundreds of Altoona schoolchildren. The Altoona High School senior band provided the music.
City Councilman W.S. Greevey, in delivering the main address, stated that the site for the park, on top of Altoona's highest hill, been called Gospel Hill from the city's earliest days. The name originated from the number of churches on the hill where the gospel was preached.
St. John's Catholic Church, the first Catholic Church in Altoona, circa 1850, was located at 13th Avenue and 14th Street. At the time of the park dedication, a large twin spire cathedral had replaced the original church building. Adjacent to the church, on the site of the present cathedral, was a large Preparatory Academy where young women, desiring to become Sisters of Charity, were educated.
On the northwest corner of 12th Avenue and 13th Street is a Methodist Church. Its roots date back to Aug. 13. 1854, when a brick two-story Methodist church was dedicated on the site.
That church was remodeled in 1871, and a tower was added. The church was razed in 1905, and the current building was dedicated April 27, 1907.
The First Presbyterian Church was organized in Altoona in 1852. The parishioners purchased two lots on the southwest corner of 12th Avenue and 13th Street, directly across from the Methodist church and, in 1852, erected a large, wood-frame church.
In 1854-55, this congregation moved into a new brick church building at 1220-1222 11th Avenue across from the Logan House. Their old building was destroyed by a fire in 1855.
On Feb. 28, 1908, Congressman Reynolds notified Altoona's mayor by mail that he had procured two naval guns for the park.
The first gun, a four-barrel Gatling cannon, made in 1898, 8 feet long and weighing 1,350 pounds, arrived on May 5, 1908. The second gun arrived on June 4, 1908; it was immediately set in place and dedicated to the members of Post 468, Grand Army of the Republic.
For many years, Gospel Hill City Park was fashionable to stroll around, have your picture taken in front of one of the naval guns, have a picnic, take in the city scene below and enjoy the cool shade on a warm summer evening.
The passage of time, however, has a way of causing that which was once meaningful and important to fall out of favor.
First to go was a covered grandstand. Then the pyramid-shaped piles of 15-inch cannon balls were broken down.
Time, vandalism nor neglect could dislodge the two majestic naval guns from their emplacements. Like sentinels on watch, they held their post for nearly 40 years.
In the mid-1940s, when our country was engaged in a horrific global conflict, those guns were taken from the hill and given to a wartime scrap drive.
For a lengthy period, those two pieces of history and the city park in which they stood, served our city well.
John Conlon lives in Altoona.