When the Pennsylvania Canal breached the Allegheny Mountains in the 1830s, it used a rudimentary railroad to haul cargo, passengers, and canal boats over the mountains. Twenty years later, PRR engineers decided they needed a central location for trains to regroup and add locomotives before continuing the arduous journey over the mountains. They found their site at David Robeson's 233-acre farm, where the Little Juniata River carved a relatively flat valley, and purchased it in 1850. Within four years Altoona grew from a town with a population of 50 people to one with more than 2,000, and to over 10,000 by 1875. The name was chosen by the railroad to commemorate Altona, a sixteenth-century Danish town that hosted an important railway hub after 1844 and is now part of Hamburg, Germany. The extra “o” was added purposely to distinguish the two towns. While engineers improved the tracks from Altoona westward, the PRR used the old portage railroad to link to Pittsburgh until it could craft a better route. Chief engineer J. Edgar Thomson recommended that the railroad build the Horseshoe Curve ( BL24), but it was not constructed until 1854, after he became president of the PRR. In 1857, the PRR dismantled the portage railroad.
By 1852, the Altoona shops were repairing railway cars, making parts for locomotives, and constructing cars, cast-iron bridge parts, boilerplate, and track. The PRR began building entire locomotives in Altoona in 1862, and by 1884, the local works were producing over five hundred per year in an indoor facility large enough to test a full-scale locomotive. They also built several specialty cars for refrigeration and overnight passengers. The PRR founded the Altoona Hospital and the Mechanics Library, and sponsored a company band, athletic events, and a symphony orchestra. The railroad and its successors were Altoona's major employer until well into the 1980s, when they were superseded by the Altoona Hospital. But by 2000, when Norfolk Southern controlled the railroad, all but the shops in north Altoona had closed, and the city's population was nearly 40 percent less than it had been at its peak in 1929. The fate of the PRR can be summarized as follows: it was merged with the New York Central in 1968 to become the Penn Central, which failed in 1970. Many of Altoona's shops and its passenger station were razed in 1972. In 1976, the government created the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which in 1998 was split between Norfolk Southern and CSX, the track's operator. The Altoona and Hollidaysburg shops went to Norfolk Southern.
The city learned from its initial dependence on a single industry and has diversified. Today, Altoona is the urban core for the central part of the commonwealth, with shopping, entertainment, and cultural sites, as well as a branch of Pennsylvania State University (since 1939). In addition to the usual array of suburban big box stores and malls, Altoona maintains several historic districts and unique historical sites. The Railroaders Memorial Museum founded c. 1979 moved in 1998 to the PRR's Master Mechanics building ( BL7). The largest employers are now city, state, and federal governments and service industries, such as Altoona Hospital (1995; 620 Howard Avenue), which opened a four-story concourse and atrium designed by Hayes Large Architects to improve access and circulation for the increasing patient load.
Unlike most company towns, Altoona has a history of home ownership, due in large part to the PRR, which encouraged it. Local architectural firms include Beezer Brothers, active in Altoona from 1892 to 1896 and in Pittsburgh until 1906. Their homes and the streetcar station at Llyswen introduced elements of Shingle Style and classicism to the area. The Hayes Large architectural firm, founded in Hollidaysburg in 1922 by John Hunter (1898–1993), has grown from a single individual to a firm employing 136, with offices in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and on N. Logan Avenue in Altoona.
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