Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finding My Hometown

Last week, my newest book was released through Arcadia Publishing. Entitled Images of Modern America: Altoona, the project is a photographic exploration of my hometown in Pennsylvania. In crafting this book, I rediscovered that history is a matter of perception. I found at the outset of this project that interpreting every noteworthy event or place of my hometown would not be possible. Thus, this book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Altoona. While this series is entitled Images of Modern America, I use the year 1945 as a point of departure for exploration. Like countless communities, World War II and its long term ramifications had profound consequences on Altoona. While I was a park ranger at Gettysburg, I learned history is best served to the masses from personal perspectives. Taking the same approach with this chronicle, I strived to give the people of Altoona a voice with the assistance primary sources.

Altoona, Pennsylvania sits at an intersection of history. Shaped by geography, created by a railroad, fueled by industry, forged by war, and remade through innovation, the city’s tale is a microcosm of the American story. Purportedly named after the Cherokee word “allatoona,” meaning “high lands of great worth,” the city could just as well have been named after Allatoona, Georgia—the site of a major railroad junction. Established in 1849 by the enterprising Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), Altoona was a town of constant bustle. An aspiring Andrew Carnegie began his career there. In 1862, northern governors held a covert meeting in the city to discuss momentous issues of the Union cause. The first generation of Bell telephones were connected to Altoona’s railroad shops in 1877. Babe Ruth hit a home run at nearby Cricket Field in 1924. Eighteen years later, Nazi saboteurs were thwarted in a daring plot to detonate the city’s industry. As all these forces were at work, Altoona thrived as the largest railroading center in the world.

During World War II, trains whizzed through the picturesque Horseshoe Curve every fifteen minutes. Despite wartime woes and rationing, the city remained a flourishing hub of activity. Unfortunately for Altoona, the end of the costliest war in history also marked the gradual decline of the town and the business empire that conceived it. While many of the PRR’s competitors converted to diesel engines, the Pennsylvania Railroad did not heavily do so until after the war. Even then, fewer workers were needed to repair more efficient trains. Railroad misfortunes multiplied with the advent of commercial airliners, the death of the Altoona & Logan Valley Electric Railway in 1954, and the rise of the affordable family car.

During the 1950s, Altoona facilities and laborers continued to diminish in the face of corporate woes and rapidly changing times. In June 1952, the PRR began to dismiss employees not involved in the diesel or car repair programs. The decision marked the end of an era. The demise of steam engines came the following year and Altoona would never be the same. Fifteen years later, the PRR was forever gone and the community found itself consumed by uncertainty. Consecutive railroading tenures by the Penn Central, Conrail, and Norfolk Southern placed Altoonans within a seemingly constant ebb of transition.

Dedication of the famous K-4 Engine at Horseshoe Curve - June 8, 1956.

The lasting consequences of the region’s labor exodus ushered nearly unfathomable change—as is best represented by Altoona’s dramatic decline in population. Reaching its numerical peak in 1930 with over 82,000 residents, the city is home to approximately 45,000 citizens as of 2014. This demographic shift, in turn, led to a rapid increase in urban blight and gradual deterioration of a formerly enterprising business district. Subsequently, franchises located downtown began to relocate within the new cultural landscapes of suburbanization and urban sprawl. Constructed in 1959, the Pleasant Valley Shopping Center was among the first of these new strip malls that created an entirely new commercial vista. The areas of Plank Road and Interstate 99 are now dotted with major retailers marketing to Altoonans and passing motorists.

As Altoona residents looked beyond the traditional city limits for growth, local leaders attempted to stem the infectious tide of blight from within. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of structures were razed between 5th and 12th Avenues to make way for potential redevelopment, plazas, and modernized facilities for Altoona High School. While many historical structures were lost in this seesaw process, activists saved others—including the majestic Mishler Theater. Reinventing what was once the heart of the community remains an ongoing evolution into the 21st century.

While certain episodes of the city’s past are bleak, much is also to be commended. Iconic treasures such as Baker Mansion and the Horseshoe Curve stand resilient against the tests of time. Corporations such as Norfolk Southern, Sheetz, Ward Trucking, and Wolf Furniture operate as regional economic pillars. This characteristic is equally true of community institutions such as the Altoona Area School District, Blair Medical Associates, Penn State Altoona, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Altoona campus. At the same time, the successful Altoona Curve baseball club has infused an immense level of civic pride among area residents.

Second baseman Rob Mackowiak stands alongside little leaguers during the national anthem.
Ultimately, this book seeks to holistically examine both the accomplishments and pitfalls that have inexorably shaped Altoona and its people. To illustrate the numerous tragedies and triumphs Altoona has experienced over the course of seven decades, this book is divided into four chapters. Chapter One delves into the lives, products, and practices of Altoona businesses ranging from humble diners to a multi-billion dollar corporation. While the city is synonymous with railroading, other enterprises and infrastructure were necessary to sustain the colossal industrial undertaking. This section is counterbalanced by an additional chapter interpreting the significances of railroad culture within the community. In doing so, the author attempts to convey a human drama as much as a mechanical one.

A third chapter of the book analyzes the role of civic organizations and foundations within the community including schools, churches, the arts, and landmarks. Recognition of such hallowed institutions is a vital component of understanding a community’s character. Accordingly, a final section reveals the significance of sports and leisure in relation to Altoona’s identity. In doing so, this book considers the value of community spirit that local teams have evoked. Equally noteworthy are the parks, stores, and places of recreation that bound together families and neighbors. All told, these varied episodes, people, and places stitch together a rich mosaic of a classic Pennsylvania city. 

The book is now available on Amazon.  Thanks for your continued support!

No comments:

Post a Comment