Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Last Days of Alto

Alto Tower, Altoona, Pa.; May 11, 2012
The end is near for a Pennsylvania Railroad icon. Alto Tower in Altoona, Pa., has watched the passing parade of freight and passenger trains since it opened in 1880. It has seen trains from Pennsy successors Penn Central, Conrail and Norfolk Southern pass it windows, and watched as the Penn Central's passenger trains gave way to Amtrak in 1971.

Modernization of railroad signaling systems across the country, accelerated by the mandate to have Positive Train Control installed on all main lines by 2015, has caused the wholesale replacement of classic signal structures throughout the U.S. Alto Tower has been swept up in that same modernization. Long controlling the switches used to shuttle helper locomotives onto trains heading for the climb up the Allegheny Mountains, with the trains guided by classic PRR position light signals, the tower's functions will be shifted to a centralized dispatcher.

Alto Tower, Altoona, Pa.; May 11, 2012
With rumors swirling that the tower would be closed down in mid-May 2012, I headed out to Altoona for one final photography session of the tower. Late in the night of May 11, I was set up on the 17th Street bridge to photograph freights and helper sets as they paraded by the tower. The final shots were clicked off at 3:00 a.m. in the morning of May 12.

After a quick nap in the car, I was back at the tower shortly after sunrise to get some last daylight shots. If there is any consolation to the story, the tower is expected to be left standing intact for the foreseeable future. It's location -- sandwiched between a four-lane highway and the railroad -- would make public access (and thus a museum effort) difficult where it stands. Perhaps it could be moved to the nearby Railroaders' Memorial Museum or even just across the tracks where there is available open space.

Towers once dotted the entire Pennsylvania every few miles. Indeed, Alto had sisters within eyesight in either direction. But Alto became the last, and it will soon join the others as a piece of history.

Alto Tower, Altoona, Pa.; May 12, 2012
Bonus Shot -- before shooting Alto Tower on May 11, I headed up to Gallitzin to see if my flash equipment could light up trains exiting the tunnel at the summit of the Alleghenies. The photo below was taken with four strobes.

Norfolk Southern; Gallitzin, Pa.; May 11, 2012

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