The Altoona region and Pennsylvania’s Blair County open a window onto dramatic episodes from this nation’s past. At Fort Roberdeau, visitors can troop to the colors in a reconstruction of a Revolutionary War fort. Railroad enthusiasts can track the course of railroad history at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum and watch the freight trains navigate the renowned Horseshoe Curve, one of the first effective passages through the Allegheny Mountains. The September 11th National Memorial Trail, cutting through the countryside, offers a safe, accessible opportunity for walkers, runners and cyclists to experience beautiful landscapes and discover new towns. Baker Mansion, home of the Blair County Historical Society, displays historical exhibits that tell the region’s story.
Fort Roberdeau Historical Site features a reconstructed 1778 frontier fort in a 230-acre county park, offering tours, exhibits, nature trails, a picnic area, gift shop and innovative educational programs. A full calendar of special events, including the upcoming Star Spangled Fourth Independence Day celebration and Revolutionary War Days, Aug. 14 and 15, brings the past into the present.
The fort can be viewed during the day, but tours require tickets purchased in the gift shop located in the barn. Covered picnic pavilions and modern restroom facilities make an inviting venue for picnic lunches.
Riding History’s Rails
The Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum claims the title of “America's only interactive Railroaders Museum.” Dedicated to “…revealing, interpreting, commemorating and celebrating the significant contributions of Railroaders and their families to American life and industry,” the museum appeals to non-rail fans as well as confirmed rail enthusiasts. Focusing on the history of railroad workers and railroad communities in central Pennsylvania, the museum highlights the Altoona Works, originally constructed for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Its influence on transportation infrastructure and production standards established the PRR as a major factor in driving America’s industrial revolution.
The museum also operates a separate museum, visitor center and observation area at the historic Horseshoe Curve. Considered one of the world's most incredible engineering feats, the tightly curved section of railroad track lessened the grade to the summit of the Allegheny Mountains, decreased the time required to cross, and opened a new passage west. Today, visitors can ride a funicular or walk 194 beautifully landscaped steps to the tracks to view the trains. Horseshoe Curve is on the National Register of Historic Places, a designated National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
The September 11th National Memorial Trail, an evolving network of off-road multi-use trails, greenways, scenic roads and byways links the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, the Pentagon Memorial in Washington D.C. and the United Airlines Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The 1,140-mile trail ties together existing trails through Pennsylvania and passes just south of Altoona on its path through Blair County. The nearly 9-mile stretch connects to the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, the only route over the mountains before the Horseshoe Curve.
Telling Blair County’s Story
For more than a century, the Blair County Historical Society, located in Altoona’s Baker Mansion, has preserved and interpreted regional history. The 1849 Greek Revival mansion was originally home to iron maker Elias Baker and his family. Today, the splendid structure houses several rooms decorated with period furnishings and historical exhibits. While the Bakers’ story is a highlight, the museum is equally dedicated to presenting the broader and even more dramatic story of Blair County and its role in our nation’s development.
More than history draws people to Baker Mansion. A full calendar of events includes a “Sundays on the Lawn Summer Series” of musical entertainment, free Family Outdoor Movie Nights, an Arts and Crafts Festival on July 11 and Ye Old Time Fair on August 28.
The Blair County Historical Society also offers a Heritage Passport program inspired in part by the National Parks Passport. The passport presents 17 unique sites in the Blair County area, each with its own stamp. As an extra incentive, completing the book enables participants to receive free tickets to Altoona Curve baseball games, the local affiliate team of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Email your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@gmail.com.