The Allegheny Portage Railroad near Altoona is one of the most historic railroading sites in Pennsylvania!
This 36 mile-long track was the first railroad built across the Allegheny Mountains, allowing for canals on the eastern and western sides of the state to be connected, cutting the travel time between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from weeks to just days.
Using an ingenious system of 10 inclined planes, 10 stationary steam engines, and a series of rails, cables, and pulleys, canal boats carrying freight and/or passengers could be loaded on flatbed train cars and winched up and down over the mountains, similar to how a modern day ski lift operates.
For 20 years, from 1834 until 1854, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was considered a technological marvel, playing a critical role in opening the lands west of the mountains to settlement and commerce.
With the completion of the nearby Horseshoe Curve in 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad was able cross the Allegheny Mountains solely under the power of steam locomotives, cutting the travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to just 13 hours, rendering the Allegheny Portage Railroad obsolete.
Today, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is maintained by the National Park Service, allowing visitors to learn about and explore first-hand the “glory days” of the Allegheny Portage Railroad near Altoona.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad Visitor Center
The Visitor Center is the best place to start your visit to the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and admission is FREE to this taxpayer-funded historic site.
Inside the Visitor Center you’ll find various exhibits and models, including a life-size replica of a canal boat, a locomotive, and artifacts from the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
A small theatre in the Visitor Center plays a 20 minute movie, which depicts what it was like to work and travel on the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
There are plenty of hands-on and interactive exhibits inside the Visitor Center to interest young and old alike.
Engine House Number 6
A short walk along a beautiful boardwalk will take you from the Visitor Center to Engine House Number 6, a replica of what the original engine house here looked like, perched at the top of Incline Number 6.
Inside Engine House Number 6, you’ll find replicas of the stationary steam engine, gears, brakes, and assorted levers and cables that kept the train cars and canal boats in motion.
You’ll also find a series of interpretive exhibits and models inside the engine house, giving you a better understanding of the technical aspects of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
The Lemon House
A short distance from Engine House Number 6, you’ll find the Lemon House, a historic tavern built by Samuel and Jean Lemon in 1834 to accommodate railroad travelers and workers with food, drink, and lodging.
The first floor of the Lemon House has been restored to what an 1840s tavern might have looked like.
In addition to the bar area, there is a beautifully-decorated formal parlor…
and a period-correct dining room.
The Incline 6 Trail
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can hike down (and then back up) the 1/3 mile long Incline 6 Trail.
A sign at the trailhead tips you off to the payoff for your efforts – a chance to explore the Skew Arch Bridge.
The Skew Arch Bridge was built OVER the Allegheny Portage Railroad, so that wagons could still use the Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Turnpike without interruption.
This masterwork of cut stone construction was built with the “skew” in it to accommodate a bend in the turnpike road.
Canal boats riding the rails up and down Incline Number 6 would have passed right under the Skew Arch Bridge.
A model back in the Visitor Center depicts what the Skew Arch Bridge would have looked like when the Allegheny Portage Railroad was still operational.
Standing at the bottom of Incline Number 6 also gives you an idea of the danger involved if the cables pulling the train cars/canal boats up and down the mountain broke, which they occasionally did.
Visiting the Allegheny Portage Railroad Near Altoona
The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is located just off Route 22 at the Gallitzin exit.
If navigating by GPS, use coordinates 40.4583206, -78.5497341 to reach the Visitor Center parking lot.
For the most up-to-date hours and to check on any potential closures or restrictions, please visit the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE.
The Staple Bend Tunnel in Cambria County has the distinction of being the first railroad tunnel built in the United States!
Constructed as part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad (between the top of Incline 1 and the bottom of Incline 2 near Johnstown), the Staple Bend Tunnel is now operated as part of a rail trail by the National Park Service.
The World-Famous Horseshoe Curve was considered one of the “engineering wonders of the world” at the time of its completion in 1854.
The Horseshoe Curve allowed steam locomotives to cross back and forth over the steep Allegheny Mountains, something that had been impossible before 1854 (and the reason the Allegheny Portage Railroad existed).
The Allegheny Tunnel (known originally as the Summit Tunnel) in nearby Gallitzin was the longest railroad tunnel in the world at the time of its completion, at 3,612 feet.
Completed at the same time as the Horseshoe Curve (1854), the Allegheny Tunnel is still in use to this day, and the Gallitzin Tunnels Park next to it is a popular spot for railfans to congregate and watch trains enter and exit the tunnel.
The Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in Blair County celebrates the lives of both railroad workers and railroading communities in central Pennsylvania.
Unlike many “train museums” that focus primarily on engines and cars, the Railroaders Memorial Museum focuses primarily on the men and women who kept the engines running and the cars rolling.
Prince Gallitzin’s crypt in Cambria County contains the remains of a former Russian prince turned trailblazing Catholic priest, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin.
In 1899, on the centennial of the founding of Loretto, Father Gallitzin’s gravesite was capped by a pedestal of granite and a bronze statue, donated by former Loretto resident Charles M. Schwab, who also paid for the construction of the large stone church that stands there today.
Fans of all things old, abandoned, and slightly creepy will find the nearby abandoned Cresson State Prison a thrill to explore!
The Admiral Peary Monument in Cambria County honors U.S. Naval officer Robert Peary, a Cresson native credited with being the first explorer to reach the North Pole.
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