Westsylvania Heritage Trail

A Guide to Southwest Pennsylvania’s Historic Places

Westsylvania Heritage Trail coverWOW! I’m not sure what I expected when I made plans to visit the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, but it certainly wasn’t what I found there. Don’t be fooled by the strip shopping center that adjoins the museum. What’s inside the former Pennsylvania Railroad master mechanic’s building is a fascinating interactive look at the industry that put Altoona on the map–railroading.

Three floors of very imaginative and entertaining exhibits tell visitors a lot about the role the railroads played in pushing settlements and industry west and how Altoona’s fortunes were linked to those of the venerable Pennsylvania Railroad. As late as 1949, the Altoona Mirror was able to say that “Railroading is Altoona and Altoona is railroading.”

At its peak in the 1920s, Altoona had 60,000 residents and 17,000 railroad employees. An orientation to Altoona’s place in railroad history is provided in a 27-minute film that is shown every 45 minutes throughout the day in the museum’s theatre. It tells how the Pennsy’s 120 buildings ran three miles through the city and how the locomotive was a proud symbol for their railroad town. Exhibits throughout the building tell the story of the “army of railroaders [who] designed, built, maintained, and moved the Pennsylvania Railroad – the largest railroad in the world [and who thus] changed the face of America.”

Much of the story is told in the words of those who lived it. Video stations throughout the exhibit halls allow you to select from a menu of topics and narrators and see and hear short video clips of actual railroaders telling their experiences.

There are two theories of how Altoona got its name. One says that Altoona is a Cherokee Indian word meaning “highlands of great worth” and that it was brought to the area by railroad chief engineer J. Edgar Thompson from the Allatoona Pass in Georgia. The other theory is that it was named for the German railroad city Altona. Wherever the name came from, it was its geography in the middle of the route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that led to its critical role for the railroad. (Excerpt from Chapter 1)

Written by John G. Hope. Photography by Blair Seitz. Published by RB Books in 2001

isbn: 1-879441-83-7, SC 6 in. x 9 in., 60 photos, 144 pgs.

To view more photographs of Southwest Pennsylvania by photographer Blair Seitz, visit our stock files.