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North Hills Monthly

Horseshoe Curve Only the Start of Altoona’s Attractions

Jan 30, 2019 10:38AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Horseshoe Curve, photo courtesy Explore Altoona

If you get a heart-shaped box of candy this year for Valentine’s Day, you can thank James A. (Pike) Gardner, who the confectionary industry credits for packaging chocolate this way. Traveling salesmen who visited his shop in Tyrone, PA, liked the idea so much that they took it home to factories in their areas, thus creating one of the most time-honored traditions around the world.

The original Gardners Candies, which now contains a candy museum, is still located in Tyrone, where it recently celebrated its 120th anniversary. This is just one of the surprises that you’ll find while visiting Altoona, PA, and the surrounding towns of Tyrone and Hollidaysburg. Best known as the home of the Horseshoe Curve, the area is full of hidden gems from art and architectural treasures, to a wealth of outdoor activities, to opportunities to re-live railroad and early American history.

For History Buffs

You have to start with the curve, of course, because it’s not only a great tourist attraction, but an engineering marvel. Back in the 1800s, people from New York and Philadelphia wanted to travel west, but the Allegheny Mountains stood in their way. A Pennsylvania Railroad engineer came up with the idea to build tracks that followed the natural formation of the mountain, and 450 Irish mine workers, using only hand drills, black powder, picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, finished the massive project in just three years.

In operation since 1854, anyone traveling on Amtrak to Philly or the Big Apple will travel through the curve, but it’s definitely worth planning your trip to include a stay in Altoona. There is a fantastic on-site museum that takes visitors through the history and science of the curve, and you can ride a funicular up the mountain to stand nearby as trains pass each other on the U-shaped track.

The city is proud of its railroad history, which is impressively showcased in the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum. There’s something for every train buff here, including an in-depth look at the Pennsylvania railroad—at the time, the largest railroad in the world—to a non-destructive testing lab where visitors can experiment at hands-on stations. But there are also a lot of exhibits focusing on life in Altoona during the railroad’s heyday, including a look at the role of women on the railroad, and the importance of Horseshoe Curve during the war. There’s even a replica of a bar where railroad men would go after work—unfortunately, no women were allowed.

The area’s history can also be found at Fort Roberdeau, which is the westernmost Revolutionary War site in America. The reconstructed lead mine fort, located in a 230-acre park, offers a range of special programming from frontier cooking classes to Ranger Days for the kids, and you can take a self-guided tour at any time or visit during summer to wander the grounds with local history students on guided tours of the site. 

Architecture and art

There are some truly beautiful buildings in the Altoona area, ranging from churches to homes to restored movie halls.

Stepping into the Mishler Theatre, located in downtown Altoona’s arts and cultural district, is like stepping back in time. Originally built by Isaac Mishler in 1906, the Baroque-style theater burned to ground eight months later and was rebuilt in 1907. It fell into disrepair in the 1950s, and was slated to be torn down for a parking lot; luckily, it was saved by community members and restoration began in 1997, which included removing railroad soot from its all-gold interior. The stunning chandelier is worth a stop just to see—added in the 1970s, no one quite remembers where it came from, but it’s thought it might have been a prop in a film set.

Right up the street is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which deserves a peek inside. From its etched glass doors to its soaring 198-foot-high dome, every inch of this Italian Renaissance-influenced sanctuary is stunning.

I especially liked Baker Mansion, 

which was built by Allegheny Furnace owner Elias Baker in 1849. This Greek Revival–style mansion took four years to build and cost $15,000, and at the time earned the title of Baker’s Folly. Filled with period furniture, today it’s home to the Blair County Historical Society and is open for tours and special events. 

Speaking of the furnace, if you visit 958-acre Canoe Creek Park, you can easily hike to the ruins of limestone kilns built in the early 1900s that provided raw materials to the iron and steel industry. The park has roughly 11 miles of hiking trails so you can wander through history while enjoying the great outdoors.

Food and Outdoor Fun 

The DelGrosso family is also a large part of Altoona’s history, and nowhere is this better shown than at DelGrosso’s Park and Laguna Splash. An amusement park connected to the only Italian-themed waterpark in the country, it features roller coaster rides, a lazy river and wave pool, waterslides and more. Even better, at least in my opinion, is that they serve food made with all of their products there.

I advise visiting on Spaghetti Wednesdays, where people line up for a special Italian meal—the park serves up to 2,500 lasagna meals and 1,700 spaghetti meals on this day alone. The only drawback is that it makes it kind of hard to wait an hour before getting in the water since you want to eat all day.

One other place to eat and enjoy the great outdoors is at the Peoples Natural Gas field in Altoona, where you can watch the Altoona Curve play while noshing on stadium food. A Class AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the stadium provides the perfect backdrop for a baseball game as well as people-watching, since it’s a favorite hangout for locals.

To learn more about Altoona and its surrounding areas, visit