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Enthroned amid eternal hills,
Who's walls are living green,
You sit smoke crowned, majestically,
O Appalachian Queen!
Your towering stacks, like sentries stand
To guard your marts of trade.
Steam is your fleetwinged courier
And Din, your serenade


The future site of Altoona lay on the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains. These mountains traverse the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia from northeast to southwest. Also portions of this mountain range can be found in Ohio and Maryland. They rise above the surrounding land from two to four thousand feet forming a formidable obstacle to trade and commerce from east to west. Dense hardwood forests covered these mountains. Underneath this forest canopy wild animal and Indian trails traversed the mountains.[2]

During the eighteenth century, British colonists gradually began settling near these mountains, where they cleared the land, and established farms. After the American Revolution, the new Americans established iron furnaces to exploit the local deposits of iron ore and charcoal furnaces to use the extensive hardwood forests in the vicinity of the future town of Altoona. These two products proved the raw material for forges opened in the area at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These small furnaces and forges either produced iron products such as horseshoes and wheel rims for local use or shipped their products by wagon or packhorse to Pittsburgh.

The first permanent settlers in the Altoona vicinity came about 1810, although Thomas and Michael Coleman settled in Logan Township, possibly, as early as 1775 and John Long took up residence in Pleasant Valley in 1788. [3] The growth and development of Blair County exemplified the expansion along the entire American western frontier. This westward growth caused great concern among the Philadelphia merchants, who feared that they must open markets and communications with the West, in particular Pittsburgh, or be outstripped by Baltimore and New York merchants in the quest for the lucrative western trade. They believed that the loss of western markets would leave Philadelphia economically stagnant.

John Stevens in 1823 seemed to offer the merchants hope in reaching the western markets when he obtained a charter from the state to construct a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia with the intention of later extending this rail line to Pittsburgh. Stevens failed in his efforts to raise enough capital for the new venture and the railway was not constructed. The opening of New York's Erie Canal in 1825 and its success encouraged Philadelphia merchants to take action to remain competitive in the race for western commerce. Their efforts resulted in the Pennsylvania legislature passing a bill in 1826 authorizing the construction of a railroad and canal system extending from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. This led to construction of the state-operated Allegheny Portage Railroad in the 1830s. The portage railroad followed a combined railroad and canal route known as the Pennsylvania Main Line, which spanned more than 394 miles across the state. The state completed this route in 1834 at a cost of more than twelve million dollars. The portage railway ingeniously surmounted the Allegheny summit through a series of steep inclines over which the passenger and freight cars were hauled up by means of stationary hoisting engines. This picturesque means of travel proved a slow and dangerous method of crossing the mountains, but did open up central Pennsylvania to economic development. By 1855, the New Allegheny Portage Railroad began operations with a combined rail and canal operations which eliminated the need for the incline operations, but still was slow in comparison with a strictly railroad system. [4]


The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad managers in 1845 petitioned the Pennsylvania State Assembly for the right to construct a railroad from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Once again this provoked the Philadelphia merchants, who believed this an attempt to keep them from trading with the people in the Ohio Valley. They responded by proposing the creation of a Pennsylvania Railroad which would connect Philadelphia with Pittsburgh. Each side campaigned vigorously with the State Assembly to accept its respective proposal. In 1846, the Pennsylvania State Assembly passed an act granting the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad the right to extend their railroad to Pittsburgh. At the same time, the assembly chartered the Pennsylvania Railroad Company on April 13, 1846, to construct and operate a railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, a distance of 249 miles. A rail link between Philadelphia and Harrisburg already existed. The next year supporters of the Pennsylvania Railroad succeeded in having the Pennsylvania governor declare the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad charter null and void. [5] This left the Pennsylvania Railroad as the only chartered railroad.

The Pennsylvania Railroad charter provided that the railroad be governed by a board of thirteen directors each owning at least twenty shares of the company's capital stock. Railroad stockholders elected the first Board of Directors on March 30, 1847, with Samuel Vaughan Merrick becoming the first President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and John Edgar Thomson selected as the chief engineer. The directors represented a cross section of Philadelphia's elite coming from backgrounds in financing, manufacturing, and merchandising. Thomson as chief engineer immediately undertook surveys to determine the best possible route to Pittsburgh. Prior to this effort in the 1840s, the Pennsylvania State Canal Commission authorized engineer Charles L. Schlatter to survey possible routes from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. Schlatter conducted three surveys across the Alleghenies. Thomson examined these routes and found Schlatter's central route would prove feasible for the new Pennsylvania Railroad. The route selected by Thomson went from Harrisburg west through Logan's Narrows nearly in a direct line to Sugar Gap Run and to Robinson's Summit (now Altoona). This route followed the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers to the summit which was 800 feet above the elevation of Harrisburg. The steepest ascent began near the summit of the Alleghenies and from there followed a gradual descent to Pittsburgh. [6] The Pennsylvania Railroad officials paid an estimated $11,140,000 for construction and equipment for the new railroad. The first section of the proposed route to Pittsburgh opened for passenger and freight service between Harrisburg and Lewiston in September, 1849. [7]


While the railroad pushed steadily westward, railroad agents purchased local farmers' land for the route. Archibald Wright, presumably working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, paid $10,000 for the 224 acres of David Robeson's (sometimes spelled Robison and Robinson) farmland and woodland. The transfer of deed occurred on April 24, 1849. This tract became the townsite of Altoona and fifteen acres of it became the first railroad shops. [8] The townsite lay 235 miles west of Philadelphia and 116 miles east of Pittsburgh at an elevation of 1,164 feet above sea level. The name Altoona may be the Americanized version of the Cherokee word "Allatoona," meaning high land of great worth.

Wright began selling plots in the town in 1851. One of the earliest buildings constructed in Altoona became the office for the railroad's road engineer. Railway shops construction began in 1850 with Wright conveying the deed for the land to the railroad in 1851. The railroad officials selected this site to construct a town because trains coming from the east required additional motive power here to climb the Alleghenies while helper engines added to trains coming from Pittsburgh were no longer be required. The grade east of Altoona rose about twenty feet to a mile and near Altoona, the grade began increasing to ninety-five feet to the mile which necessitated engine power increase. Also, this site served as a location for changing the makeup of the trains and making repairs on engines and cars. The main topographical reason for founding Altoona beside the steeper grades which occurred after this point was that water became less accessible and abundant farther west. In addition, Pennsylvania Railroad officials found that the raw material needed for shop work such as coal, iron, and lumber could be acquired readily in this vicinity. Company officials further felt confident that the newly created town would remain economically dependent on the railroad for many years. During 1851, the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks extended from Harrisburg to Altoona which was a distance of one hundred and thirty-two miles. At a point one and a quarter miles west of Hollidaysburg, the Pennsylvania Railroad connected its track temporarily with those of the Allegheny, Portage Railroad. [9]

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2004