It's still there, but it's no longer an integral part of our railroad.
On June 16, after 97 years, Norfolk Southern took its last Pennsylvania switch tower - Alto Tower, near 17th Street - out of service.
"It amazed me how it lasted as long as it did," said Leroy Sheller, who worked there years ago.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Alto Tower in Altoona ceased controlling train traffic on June 16. Rail traffic will now be controlled by a dispatch office in Pittsburgh.
"It was a survivor," said railfan and former railroad employee Andy Smith of Tyrone.
Alto outlasted other towers in the area - like Antis, Homer, Rose, Works and Slope - because it serviced a five-mile "block" of mainline track with 42 switches that until recently was too complex to handle remotely.
It took a year and $6 million worth of switch and signal improvements to enable the transfer of control to the dispatch office in Pittsburgh, according to Norfolk spokesman Rudy Husband.
But new is better.
Norfolk can now put more traffic through Altoona during a given time period, according to Husband.
"The old stuff, it still worked," said Dave Fouse, who maintained track facilities that included Alto. "It was just antique."
He had a tear in his eye when they shut it down, he confessed.
His wife Jeanie was the last operator to work a full shift at Alto.
She didn't know it at the time, however.
It was the overnight shift, and the following afternoon, upon rising, she got a call, with the message, "don't bother coming in," she said.
She came in anyway and hung black balloons and a banner, spray-painted with the message, "Good-bye from the operators," so the trainmen could read it.
For literature lovers, June 16 is "Bloomsday," the setting for the travels around Dublin of James Joyce's fictional hero Leopold Bloom.
The tower operators
didn't travel, but until this year's Bloomsday, they would watched the traveling trainmen come by, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, night-after-night, year-after-year.
It was a 24-hour operation.
Railfans romanticized it:
In a picture in a book that Smith showed a reporter, there's a picture of Alto at night, from outside, and the glow of the lights are cozy.
The cutlines talk about the reassurance the trainmen felt as they passed by in the night, in between stretches where they hurtled through the darkness of the Pennsylvania countryside.
"We were the eyes and ears of the railroad," Jeanie said.
She looked at the trains going by, and would let the engineers know if there was a wheel with built up grime causing a car to "jump," or a leaning car, or leaking hose, or a metal band broken and protruding from a lumber car.
Once she saw a hitchhiker reclining in a hopper car with the back of his ankles hooked on the top edge of the sloping bottom.
She stopped the train and they thought he was dead, until they reached him and he leaped up and ran off, before the railroad police arrived.
"Where am I?" he shouted.
"That way's east," one of the trainmen yelled.
People used to say the operator's job was hard, but it was mostly common sense, Jeanie said.
It probably helped she had a bit of OCD.
She would check and double-check everything.
Still, the interlocking switches were designed to be fail-safe.
The equipment wouldn't let you set a path at the same time it gave a through signal to a train that would intersect another head-on, Sheller and others said.
The biggest worry was workers on the track, Sheller and Jeanie said.
You slapped covers on the critical switches, they said.
Those were the switches that if you forgot and threw them would bring a train down on the men working.
You dared not remove them until you got word those workers had gone, Jeanie said.
The worst thing that happened to her professionally was when she would forget to return a switch, sending a train down a siding, when it was not supposed to go there.
"You're sightseeing," she'd tell the engineer.
Most of the times, they'd just chuckle.
The only loss was a couple of minutes time.
Sometimes, switches would get stuck, if it was too hot or cold.
"That's where my husband came in," she said.
He might unstick the switch with graphite.
There were deaths sometimes.
Once, she had to stop a train next to Garfield Park, when a youth on an ATV plunged over a high embankment onto the tracks.
According to a website dedicated to interlocking towers, last updated in 2004, Alto was one of 145 towers left in the country, and one of 14 in Pennsylvania.
It was one of the last relics of Pennsylvania Railroad design, according to local railfan Dave Seidel.
Norfolk hasn't decided what to do about it yet, Husband said.
"We're considering various options," he said.
One would be to leave it in place.
That would require dealing with security, the merely "fair" condition of the building and its close proximity to the tracks, however, he said.
"[Still] it's certainly an iconic structure on the Altoona landscape," Husband said. "[And] we like to celebrate our history."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.