Make Tracks Through Blair

On October 15, 2017 · 1 Comments

Our first day in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania went so well that I wondered how I would top it. Its neighbor, Blair County gave it a good run for the money though. I came up with a really good one-day itinerary too, all aligned with a railroad theme. On top of that it followed a leisurely route, covering just thirty miles (fifty kilometres) in its entirety.

I warned the kids they’d probably get tired of trains by the end of the day although they seemed to enjoy it. Well, not the last stop. We dropped them off at the hotel before that one.

Allegheny Portage Railroad


Allegheny Portage Railroad
Allegheny Portage Railroad

I talked enough about the Allegheny Portage Railroad recently so I’ll just summarize things briefly. Canals on opposing sides of the Allegheny Mountains faced a dilemma. Quite simply, water didn’t flow uphill. Entrepreneurs developed an inventive solution though. They loaded canal boats onto rail cars and tugged them up and over the hills with pulleys similar to tow ropes found on modern ski slopes (map). Primitive railroad engines (photo) pulled the loaded cars between inclines. This inventive portage across the gap measured nearly 37 miles (60 km) between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site preserved the remains of Incline 6, at the system’s elevation summit right on the Eastern Continental Divide. This included a reconstruction of an Engine House that powered a rope (later a wire) on a loop. Cars attached to the rope so they could travel uphill or downhill depending on where they were heading.

Then we walked down a wide grassy path along where the railroad once ran. This led down to the Skew Arch Bridge (photo). Here, the Huntington, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike used to cross above the railroad. Teamsters pulling wagons on the turnpike had trouble making 90 degree turns so builders placed a bridge at an oblique angle. That skew provided the bridge’s name.

Back uphill, we walked a short distance past the Engine House to a home built by Samuel Lemon in the early 1830’s (photo). There he operated a popular tavern catering to travelers on the portage. County lines followed the summit through here so I claim a bonus county — Cambria! — simply by walking to the Lemon House.

An Optional Site

We passed one more site soon after we left the park, a turnoff for the Gallitzin Tunnels Park & Museum. I didn’t know about it ahead of time so we’d already passed it before it dawned on me. It would have been a good stop. The original tunnel built there in 1854 spelled the end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and its canals. Nobody needed them once a train could cover the same territory a lot quicker.


Horseshoe Curve


Horseshoe Curve
Horseshoe Curve

Next came Horseshoe Curve. All of the promotional material described the curve (map) as "World Famous" so I took them at their word. It did impress me. Here, three tracks hugged the hillside, providing a manageable grade all the way to the Allegheny summit a few miles away. This became one of the most heavily used tracks in the United States when it opened, a position it still held more than a century and a half later. There simply weren’t that many good places to cross the mountains.

A visitor center included a small museum although the curve itself was the main attraction. Railfans came out in force. They sat in lawn chairs with their cameras and video equipment, waiting for each train to rumble along. It truly was an impressive spectacle. I felt surrounded by trains as they wrapped around the curve. We even got to experience two trains descending simultaneously, a coal train moving slowly as an intermodal train passed it.

A Funicular Too!


Horseshoe Curve
Funiculars Passing at Horseshoe Curve Park

The visitor center rested at the base of the hill while the train spotting area sat farther uphill next to the tracks. People could either walk up a long flight of stairs or take the funicular. This offered a nice little attraction while making the park handicapped accessible. Who wouldn’t want to ride the funicular, anyway? It didn’t compare to my adventures on the Monongahela Incline in Pittsburgh although it seemed to fit nicely within the rail theme of the day. This one featured a single set of tracks that split apart as the counterweighted cars passed each other.


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum


Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum
Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum

The same group that managed the Horseshoe Curve viewing area also managed the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in town. We got the combo ticket for both and saved a few bucks. Until I toured the museum (map) I didn’t truly appreciate the importance of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the city of Altoona. Essentially, Altoona wouldn’t have existed otherwise. The railroad founded Altoona at a strategic point at the base of the Allegheny crossing. It later built the Altoona Works there, a massive facility used to build, test, repair and maintain locomotives. More than 16,000 people labored at the Altoona Works during its highpoint in the 1920’s.

The Pennsy influenced practically every facet of Altoona, about as close to a company town as one could imagine. However Altoona began its decline earlier than many Rust Belt cities. First came the Great Depression. Then came the railroad’s switch from steam power to diesel locomotives. The new locomotives required much less maintenance and many fewer laborers at the Altoona Works. Finally came a general decline in railroading altogether. Altoona reached a peak population in 1930 when 83,000 people lived there. It dropped residents in every Census thereafter, leaving an estimated population of 45,000 by 2016.


Railroad City Brewing Company


Railroad City Brewing Company
Railroad City Brewing Company

We wrapped up the day, continuing the railroad theme, with a visit to Railroad City Brewing Company in downtown Altoona (map). Somehow that seemed appropriate.

We called our visit to Blair County a success.

Autumn in Huntingdon

On October 12, 2017 · 2 Comments

I completed the little adventure I described in County Hunter a few days ago. The first leg involved a course through previously unvisited Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Don’t confuse this with Huntington (with a T) elsewhere in Pennsylvania, a township in Adams County near Gettysburg. I kept messing up searches because my mind wanted to spell it the wrong way too. Nonetheless, everything worked out and I found plenty to do Huntingdon, the one with a D. The weather cooperated in early Autumn, the leaves showed signs of color, and the county brimmed with seasonal activities. Our drive up from the Washington, DC area that morning left us with too little time to see everything. We needed to select carefully.

St. Mary’s Covered Bridge


St. Mary's Covered Bridge
St. Mary’s Covered Bridge

I planned a route directly through the heart of the county. It took us from the wonderfully named Burnt Cabins, as we crossed the border heading north on U.S. Route 522, then northwest on U.S. Route 22 through the actual town of Huntingdon, and onward towards Altoona in the neighboring county (route). I looked for the usual attractions I liked to track on my many lists, of course. Covered bridges seemed to be a thing with me lately so I found the only remaining covered bridge in Huntingdon County online and added it to my itinerary. Really, how could I do otherwise? The bridge crossed Shade Creek on Covered Bridge Road just as it had since 1896, within eyesight of our route. It required no detour whatsoever and offered easy parking (map). Perfect.

The bridge sat just across the road from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Orbisonia. I just loved some of those place names in Huntingdon. Anyway, locals called it St. Mary’s Covered Bridge for the appropriate reason, or Shade Gap Bridge or even the unimaginative official name, Huntingdon County Bridge No. 8. I may have seen more imposing, more architecturally distinct, more historically significant covered bridges before although I didn’t have to go out of my way for this one either. It did feature a rather unusual two-tone paint job too. All-in-all the bridge offered a satisfactory start to my hunt through Huntingdon. It merited a brief stop for photos.


Rockhill Trolley Museum


Rockhill Trolley Museum
Rockhill Trolley Museum

It look all of ten minutes to drive up to Rockhill Furnace borough once we left the bridge (map). I wanted to see the Rockhill Trolley Museum. I wondered why a museum dedicated to preserving trolleys existed in such an out-of-the-way place. Trolleys provided urban and sometime suburban transportation in the days before buses overtook them. The concept never would have worked in a town of 400 in the middle of rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Nonetheless, the trolley museum found a home there, with plenty of space to restore old cars plus a couple of miles of suitable track and overhead electrical wires to run them.

By chance, our visit coincided with the museum’s annual Fall Spectacular weekend. That meant they let some of their rare equipment that usually sat in storage see some daylight and run the rails briefly again. People could ride them, too. A ticket lasted for the entire day and visitors could take as many trips on the old trolleys as they could stand. One ride seemed just fine for us though. We took a 1931 Brill Bullet Tram once operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in the Philadelphia area. Then we explored the rail yard for awhile.

Many other visitors qualified as true railfans (or trainspotters to the UK audience). They flocked to the museum on this special weekend both to ride the trolleys and to photograph them in action. People with cameras and video equipment lined the track anytime a trolley started rolling. I didn’t share that level of passion although I certainly understood it. After all, I have similar enthusiasm for other things not necessarily considered mainstream, like this whole County Counting obsession that led me to Huntingdon in the first place.


Lincoln Caverns


Lincoln Caverns
Lincoln Caverns Ready for Halloween

The boys liked visiting caves and I found one along our direct path (map). We arrived at Lincoln Caverns about a half-hour after we left the trolleys. It featured something special for the season too, a spooky Halloween theme called Ghosts & Goblins. We didn’t know this ahead of time. Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind it although I do find contrived hauntings a bit silly. My one son, however, didn’t like spooky stuff at all. He simply wanted to see the cave. Fortunately the good folks at Lincoln Caverns gladly offered a regular tour without the frights and scares, and gory creatures jumping from behind stalagmites with bloody butchers’ knives and such. It did feel a bit odd to have someone in a werewolf costume describe cave features although it seemed an appropriate compromise and we all enjoyed and appreciated it.

Lincoln Caverns also included a second smaller cave called Whisper Rocks in the same admission. This one, just uphill a few hundred feet, didn’t share the Halloween theme. It was a completely normal tour led by someone without a costume. Afterwards, our guide walked us down a wooded path to an open field nearby. There we climbed onto a wagon pulled by a tractor for an old-fashioned hayride. I totally didn’t expected that. It was part of the same seasonal package: a spooky cave; a normal cave and a little hayride. What a nice way to end an enjoyable afternoon during my first ever visit to Huntingdon County. Thank you, Huntingdon. It was a pleasure.

Onward to Blair County!

County Hunter

On October 8, 2017 · 3 Comments

The itch to continuously visit new counties kept stalking me. I did really well this year with a long road trip back from Missouri in April. Then I drove all over the Midwest in June. Finally I took the whole family through the Four Corners region of New Mexico and Colorado. My county counting tally stood at 1,425 by the end of the summer and yet I still wanted more. Unfortunately, I’d used up most of my vacation hours for the year. I needed to find the closest unvisited county and hit it on a weekend. Three options existed, all two-or-more hours away. Nothing closer remained anymore.

Pocahontas County, West Virginia


Forest Moon of Endor? No. Green Bank, West Virginia - 1
Forest Moon of Endor? No. Green Bank, West Virginia. Photo by Stephen Little on Flickr (cc)

I should be able to reach to nearest border of Pocahontas County in about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Certainly this would be too far for a dash-and-grab, stepping my toe across the border and heading back home. That would make a round trip of nearly seven hours just to color a single county on my map. Even I thought that sounded ridiculous.

Fortunately, if I decided to select Pocahontas for my excursion, I could find a couple of interesting activities waiting for me there. The media featured Pocahontas periodically because of the town of Green Bank, home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Scientists searched for aliens with that telescope among other things. In support, the government created a large National Radio Quiet Zone around the observatory to prevent interference with its delicate instruments. Nobody could use a mobile phone, a WiFi router or even a microwave oven within twenty miles of Green Bank. The town also attracted some rather unusual residents in recent years as a result; those who believed that they suffered from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Elsewhere in Pocahontas I could visit the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort. It offered year-round activities like many ski resorts do now. I could probably get there just in time to see the leaves change colors if I left sometime in the next couple of weeks.


Atlantic County, New Jersey


Atlantic City
Atlantic City. Photo by Eric Haake on Flickr (cc)

A little closer to home, 2 hours and 45 minutes away, I could be in Atlantic County, New Jersey. Theoretically. However, I’d need to thread the needle perfectly to avoid miserable traffic on dreaded Interstate 95. It could also take a lot longer. Then I’d need to add another half-hour to get to the only attraction worth seeing, Atlantic City. Can anyone believe I’ve never been to Atlantic City? I don’t know how that happened. I’ve had a number of opportunities over the year and yet I’ve never made the trip. Gambling isn’t my thing so that explains most of the reason. There are plenty of closer beaches.

Still, I wouldn’t mind strolling along the famous boardwalk, enjoying the flash of casino lights and hunting for every street from the Monopoly game. Really, to be honest, I’d use this as a springboard for a longer drive to capture Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth Counties. This neatly aligned trio of counties remained the only ones in New Jersey I’ve yet to capture. Then I could mark New Jersey done.


Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania


Route to Huntingdon and Blair
Route to Huntingdon and Blair (Dark Blue)

Instead I chose Huntingdon and Blair Counties in Pennsylvania. I could get to Huntingdon in as little as two hours, the absolutely closest county I’ve yet to visit. I could push deep into Blair all the way to Altoona, the regions largest city, in about three. The Twelve Mile Circle audience won’t find out what I discovered just yet. I’ll keep readers in suspense. However, expect to see an article on Huntingdon and another on Blair in the coming days.

Green Bank and Atlantic City will be visited someday too. Maybe in the Spring. We’ll see.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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