The ghosts at the Railroaders Memorial Museum must have blinked in confusion Wednesday.
There, on a nearby siding, sat a locomotive painted in the Tuscan red and gold of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which went out of business 44 years ago.
It was not an apparition, but neither was it a reincarnation: For its 30th birthday, Norfolk Southern, which operates the remaining rail shops in town - founded by the PRR - is honoring the history of 19 predecessor railroads by painting one locomotive in each of the "heritage" companies' colors.
Since 1968, Altoona's railroad infrastructure has been under the control of Penn Central, Conrail and now Norfolk Southern.
But for rail fans, the iconic line has always been the PRR, which during the first half of the 20th century was not only the largest railroad by traffic and revenue in the U.S., but was at one time the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.
The color scheme on the freight-pulling diesel was the one the Pennsy used for passenger engines, according to Paul Withers of Harrisburg, publisher of Diesel Era and books on the Norfolk Southern locomotive fleet.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
A General Electric Evolution Series 44 AC is painted in vintage PRR colors as one of 19 locomotives that Norfolk Southern is painting for its heritage collection at the Norfolk?Southern Juniata shop on?Wednesday. Brian T. Marsh, president of Overland Models Inc. of Muncie, Ind., takes hundreds of photos of the engine that his company will replicate in a model size.
He said it made sense, though, because the freight colors were drab: a dark green that was almost black.
The ghosts also might have noticed that the old Pennsy paint scheme graced an ultra-modern engine, the General Electric ES 44-AC Evo.
It's got 5,000 horsepower, more than twice the pulling force of the SD-40 engines of the mid-1960s, when all the engines here were painted in PRR colors, according to Tom Smith, senior general foreman for the Juniata Locomotive Shops.
The old colors on new engines that will travel all over the East Coast will remind railfans, customers and the general public that modern, successful NS has "deep roots in the nation's past," said Don Faulkner, the shops' general superintendent.
The heritage program will also help tie together the workers who came from different traditions within the company.
"Everybody is proud of their background," said Barry Wertz, manager of locomotive overhauls and tests, who began work for Penn Central in 1975.
"All our hearts are with Norfolk Southern now," Faulkner said. "[But] it's neat to look at our past to see where we came from."
Just as seeing Pennsy colors roll by may touch off a memory flash for older residents, Faulkner may experience the same - at seeing the engine with the scheme of Southern Railway, the big carrier where he grew up in Mississippi.
Southern merged with Norfolk & Western in 1982 to form Norfolk Southern.
Oddly, the PRR once owned Norfolk & Western, according to Withers.
"The company they once owned now owns them," he said. "It's come full circle."
The workers at the Juniata shop have been "ecstatic" about the opportunity to do the old colors on five of the 19 heritage locomotives, according to Wertz.
They got the PRR engine almost exactly right, according to Faulkner, who had to sweat it Tuesday after hearing someone say the PRR keystone logo on the side was incorrect.
He confirmed that wasn't the case by emailing a picture to a local expert.
The job isn't perfect, said Withers, explaining that the 8102 denoting the engine number is about twice as large as it should be, and that it should have been located toward the front of the engine, rather than the middle.
But nonetheless, "It's a beautiful job," he said.