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Railroaders Museum, Historic Curve reopen

After a year of being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a brighter, enlivened Railroaders Memorial Museum is ready to receive visitors at its 1200 Ninth Ave. location and at the world famous Horseshoe Curve.

Local residents are encouraged to visit both locations to see what’s new, different and improved, said Executive Director Joseph DeFrancesco. The improvements in exhibit artifacts, videos and a general “refreshening” happened during the closure through the efforts of volunteers under the guidance of new staff specially trained in historical curation.

“We are excited the museum has three credentialed staff members who have used their curatorial abilities and training to make detailed improvements,” he said. The Curve opened Friday and the museum opened March 19 for the 2021 season.

DeFrancesco’s team is Miranda Harkins, the new director of museum services, and Mark Frederick, the new director of digital outreach, with responsibilities for a newly designed website, social media engagement and management and improving exhibitions.

“We can’t emphasize enough how important it is for the community — even if you’ve been here before — to come see the new things. … We are a safe venue for visits and for family activities. Every dollar goes to preserve our collective heritage,” DeFrancesco said.

The team’s goal is to turn the museum into an attraction visited multiple times by local residents and rail fans from the region, DeFrancesco said, as it “preserves and tells the story of railroading in Altoona but also of the American worker during the Industrial Revolution.”

Harkins created a new, value-based tiered membership program with special discounts for seniors, students, family memberships and more. A new railroader admission rate also has been created. (For details, visit https://railroadcity

.square.site/memberships).

“We made it so families can come visit us affordably many times,” Harkins said. For $75, a family can purchase four unlimited-visit passes to the museum and the Horseshoe Curve. Additional specialty rates are available for students and seniors for unlimited visits and free passes to online programs. Another consequence of the pandemic is delayed repairs of the Horseshoe Curve’s funicular — so admission to the site is discounted, as well.

It’s a multi-pronged approach “to bring more foot traffic into the museum,” DeFrancesco said. “If you’ve been here once, we want you to come back again and again as exhibits will be changed and improved … every exhibit works, the lighting has been improved and replaced … and we have cleaning protocols in place to keep everyone safe.”

Like other buildings and sites, masks are required indoors at both attractions, restrooms will be cleaned throughout the day and guests are encouraged to use the many hand sanitizer stations.

Over the years, some spotlights and bulbs in track light were removed for various reasons, DeFrancesco said. “About 300 bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs. So, it’s not only better but also cheaper.”

On the third exhibit floor, the team showed off new display case items, including a chemistry set in the area that shows how and why the Pennsylvania Railroad tested everything from oranges — what varieties produced the most fresh-squeezed juice for dining car patrons — to light bulbs, which ones burned longest and most efficiently. The savings per item may have been less than a penny per item, but when calculated across the vast rail empire, it translated to huge savings as the nation’s third largest purchaser, DeFrancesco said. The Altoona Testing Department, “through innovation and technological advances starting in the early 1900s, turned the PRR into the first billion dollar corporation.”

Like most of the museum’s artifacts, the newly displayed items in the testing lab were donated by a resident who worked in the railroad testing building, located on a nearby tract of land where humans now get tested for physical ailments at the Station Medical Center.

When the research lab closed in the 1960s, one of its 500 scientists salvaged the test tubes, scales and chemistry set he used daily. The anonymous donor wrapped them before placing them in a large plastic tote, rather than see items discarded.

“If all the items from the testing lab had been preserved, it could have been its own museum,” DeFrancesco said.

Museum admission includes the Harry Bennett Memorial Roundhouse where visitors can see the K4 1361 restoration for themselves. “We are excited to be able to share the locomotive’s restoration with the visitors as we hope it becomes an added attraction,” DeFrancesco said.

The Horseshoe Curve also has new historical items and stories to tell, such as how the Curve was on Adolf Hitler’s hit list during World War II, Frederick said. The story has ties to the museum’s WWII display of railroad employee badges — an assistive device used by security personnel to screen for saboteurs.

It’s an example of how the museum highlights “pivotal moments in a bigger context to all,” Frederick said.

The reopening, he said, “is really a new beginning.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 814-949-7030.

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