Train tours to show off Altoona heritage
BY KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
With fall comes Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Railroad Heritage Train and Bus Tours, which will give participants an opportunity to enjoy a train ride and learn about the region’s railroad history.
Three Railroad Heritage Train and Bus Tours will be held on the first three consecutive Saturdays of October. The reservation deadline for each trip will occur two Fridays prior to the trip date.
“Ride the Rails Tour” will be offered Oct. 7 and 14. This tour begins at Johnstown Passenger Train Station, where participants will board the 9 a.m. train bound for Altoona. From there, a bus will pick up the passengers and take them to Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum. Following the Museum stop will be a tour of Boyer’s Candy Outlet Store, which is best known as the home of the Mallo Cup. At 1:15 p.m., participants will enjoy lunch at an Altoona-area restaurant before they leave for Horseshoe Curve. A tour of Baker’s Mansion will be offered at 3:45 p.m., and an hour later, participants will return to Altoona Railroad Station in order to catch the 5 p.m. train back to Johnstown.
The third and final Railroad Heritage Train and Bus Tour, “Ultimate Rail Fan Tour,” will be held Oct. 21, and this particular tour is catered toward train enthusiasts. This tour’s itinerary is similar to the “Ride the Rails Tour,” but concentrates on Horseshoe Curve and the Railroaders Museum. Passengers will be accompanied on the train by retired Norfolk Southern worker and train expert Brian Lehman, and at the Altoona Railroaders Museum, Curator John Meise will give participants a special look at the museum, including a behind-the-scenes view of the museum’s archives. In addition, at approximately 5 p.m. that day, the bus will take passengers to Station Mall Rail Observation Area so they can take photographs.
JAHA Curator Kaytlin Sumner said all of the scheduled sites “tell many vital stories about the advent of convenient transportation to our area.”
“Each site builds on the other,” Sumner said. “The Baker’s Mansion site pre-dates the PRR railroad and tells the story of Elias Baker’s Iron Furnace and his family’s day-to-day life in Blair County. The Mansion has recently undergone interior renovations in order to return various rooms to their former glory. The decorative arts in the Mansion are breathtaking. You don’t often get to visit a 1840s mansion, so when there is one in the area with really superb tour guides, you go.
“The Horseshoe Curve, an 1854 engineering marvel, generally produces a feeling of amazement for those watching from the viewing platform as a train takes its 2,375-foot trip around the curve. Johnstown is tied to the important history of the Horseshoe Curve because it is only as a result of the engineering marvel at the Curve that the city of Johnstown could see travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains were part and parcel to Johnstown’s growth as a steel-producing town made up of immigrants.”
Then there is the “candy stop.”
“A Boyer Candy Factory Outlet Store visit in the fall is of particular interest to our tourists because of Halloween,” Sumner said. “Many usually come with lists from family and friends, and a nice feature of the shop is the opportunity to buy factory imperfections at a discount.”
All three tours begin at Johnstown’s Passenger Train Station — and for a good reason, Sumner said.
“We like the chance to raise awareness about the Johnstown Passenger Train Station as a gem in our area, as well as the importance of rail travel in our area,” she said. “The Johnstown Passenger Train Station, which will be 101 years old this October, was once a bustling area. The surrounding neighborhood, called Millvale, was once home to a vibrant Jewish community. One of the main reasons that we conduct these tours each year is to help raise awareness of the station’s history and connect that history to our present needs in raising awareness of rail travel. Our (JAHA) president, Richard Burkert, has been working for the past several years with government officials to advocate for an increase in passenger rail trains. Currently, there are only two trains per day — one in the morning and one in the evening.”
This is the sixth year JAHA has offered these railroad tours.
“This year, we are making some changes to the route of the tour so that visitors will receive each site in sequential order of its history,” Sumner said.
Sumner added that she looks forward to these annual tours.
“The train ride, for me, is a very soothing, relaxing experience,” she said. “I think a large part of what makes the day attractive for many is the convenience and laid-back experience the day brings. For those of us responsible for being the chauffer in the day-to-day, it is nice to spend a day exploring without any real responsibilities. And there is even a snack car.”
Last year was the first year that Sumner and her colleagues offered the “Ultimate Rail Fan Tour,” and she said it went so well that they decided to offer it again.
“Visitors on this tour enjoyed the one-on-one time that they received with the Altoona Railroaders Museum Curator John Meise, whose knowledge of the ins-and-outs of particular artifacts is astounding,” she said. “John is very welcoming and passionate for his work, and it shows through his very engaging and informative tours. The behind-the-scenes view of the archives was also an attractive feature, as participants saw not only the collections, but also the museum’s current archival projects. Also, Brian Lehman’s decades of experience working for Norfolk Southern Railroad make him an interesting fellow to have a conversation with.”
Sumner added that there are many railroad enthusiasts in the area and beyond.
“There are a fair number of railroad enthusiasts in our area,” she said, “but we find that enthusiasts from others areas also join our tours. In previous years, individuals from eastern Pennsylvania, as well as out of state, have registered for our tours. I think rail enthusiasts have a lot of different reasons for loving their hobby. One of my best friends from college is a railfan, and his particular interest lies in the mechanical aspects of modern day rail engineering.”
Those who sign up for “Ride the Rails Tour” and/or “Ultimate Rail Fan Tour” can expect to enjoy the fall foliage and scenic landscapes that Pennsylvania has to offer.
“The local area appears so different from the train tracks,” Sumner said. “You see a totally different part of the area, including local streams and wooded areas, that you do not have access to in your automobile.”
Something else that makes the tours special for Sumner is meeting people who have never traveled by train.
“We were surprised to hear of the number of participants who were interested in attending because of the chance to ride a train for the first time in their lives,” she said.
And then, Sumner said, there are the parents who bring their children to enjoy the experience.
“It is important for parents to instill in their children an appreciation for local landmarks as they build a sense of belonging in their communities,” Sumner said. “Many children have a special place in their hearts for trains, so giving them a chance to ride one will give them a memorable experience.”
For more information about this year’s Railroad Heritage Train and Bus Tours, or to make a reservation, call a JAHA staff member at 814-539-1889 or stop by JAHA’s Heritage Discovery Center, located at 201 6th Avenue in Johnstown. Please note that the cost for lunch is not included in the ticket price.
“We welcome the opportunity to promote other historical sites in our area, see our dedicated, repeat visitors and meet new local folks,” Sumner said. “The repeat visitors we see each year are a testament to our commitment to offering a worthwhile, stress-free day of discovery.”