The Evolution of ALTO Tower

ALTO tower in 2012 as a pair of NS helpers push past.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1915, ALTO (JK) tower, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, remained in service for the next ninety-seven years, closing in 2012. Over that time it worked under the auspices of four different railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), Penn Central, Conrail and Norfolk Southern and each railroad, in turn, brought something new to the table. It is easy to think of railroad history over the last century to be one of subtraction; infrastructure being removed as a transportation monopoly yielded to competition from air travel and highways. However, for at least its ninety-seven years in service, ALTO’s story was one of adaptation to the ever changing times.

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The Power of Place

I have a fondness for steam radiators. That gentle heat soaks right down to the bone and although the houses I grew up in didn’t have them, the Pennsylvania depot did.

From the time I was five or six years old my dad and I made a pilgrimage to watch trains at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in Richmond, Indiana every Sunday morning. The waiting room was our refuge from the cold and I was never very far from one of those big radiators.

Daniel Burnham’s design for the PRR depot has a new lease on life that should see it standing strong for many years to come. – Photo taken September 1, 2017.

The main objects of our quest were two westbound passenger trains that were still on the Pennsy’s schedule in the 1960s. My memory is faulty where the early train is concerned, though a check of a 1960 timetable suggests it might have been No. 71 or the Cincinnati Limited. Read more

They All Fall Down

Lamenting the loss of a classic PRR signal—
The Position Light
Northward home signal, Bell Interlocking, PRR Maryland Division mainline, New Castle County, Delaware, 2015. Bell, like many PRR installations of Position Light signals in the east, were installed concurrently with the various phases of electrification of the Eastern Region Main Line. This interlocking marks the divergence of the Shellpot Branch where freights enter Edgemoor Yard, on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware.

Like many other essential railroad technologies, signaling developed with the need to manage the ever-increasing frequency of trains safely as railways expanded in the 19th century. As companies grew they adopted various solutions, but by the first quarter of the 20th century, standard designs began to evolve, and suppliers became valuable assets to the rail industry. Union Switch & Signal and General Railway Signal became two of the most common names in American signaling. They offered stock solutions that railroads could adopt and apply to their given network, but also catered to larger roads who sought to develop proprietary designs. The more recognizable wayside signaling was of course only a fraction of the full signal system. Behind the scenes, relay cases, code generators, interlocking towers, CTC machines and dispatching offices were all tethered to miles of cable and track circuits. This complex network communicated the vitally needed information to their endpoint – the signals, that familiar line-side icon of railroading as we know it. Read more

From the Main Line

View of the Main Line, East Conemaugh, Pa. This image highlights the long-standing relationships of industry and the railroad. In the case of the Johnstown area, it was steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Project

This project’s title, From the Main Line, came to me since I began traveling throughout the Northeast exploring what survives and what developed as a result of the presence of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The project is the culmination of four distinct interests and their interaction: geography, history, architecture, and a life-long love of railroads. Among other reasons, I chose the Pennsylvania Railroad to satisfy a simple question; “Why would a company consider itself the Standard Railroad of the World?” I am sure many would argue that it was just plain arrogance, but that answer was not good enough. Starting in 2007 I set out to better understand the former PRR system by examining the various aspects of the railroad to create a cohesive survey of the railroad, its defining attributes and the landscape through which it traveled.

There are several concise topics that combine to create a holistic understanding of a railroad network and its effects on its surroundings. This approach can help one to identify the unique characteristics of any railroad corridor but specifically those that refer to the Pennsy.

30th Street Penn Station and Powelton Avenue coach yard, Philadelphia, Pa. The PRR had a rich history in the city of Philadelphia. The PRR’s corporate headquarters, undertaking one of the largest public-private urban renewal projects, greatly re-shaped the landscape of Center City and West Philadelphia.
My approach

Unlike the railroads born of the United States’ westward expansion, the Pennsy was built and prospered in the established northeastern region. Much of the original route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh followed a private rail line that was part of the Main Line of Public Works (MLPW), a combination canal and rail system that ultimately failed. In 1854 the PRR bought the MLPW, and later the canals were filled in. Forges, mines, and transportation centers had formed around the canals, but flourished after the arrival of the railroad. Highlighting this history of the neighboring landscape was important to establish the visual identity of a very distinct topography.
Over this topography, the railroad traveled through a landscape both remote and civilized, but the physical plant itself is a unique engineered landscape, often identifiable by vernacular attributes specific to the railroad that constructed it.

Overbrook Station, Philadelphia, Pa. One of the oldest functioning stations on the Pennsy’s main line, Overbrook marks the beginning of where the hallowed Paoli Local serves the string of suburbs known locally as the ‘Main Line.’ The railroads played a formative role developing these areas in an effort to channel businessmen from work in the big city to a life in the quiet countryside.

The right-of-way is perhaps the most recognizable attribute of the railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad was a two-to-six-track wide main line that cut across the land on a highly engineered corridor largely separated from the outside world. A result of years of refinement, this infrastructure allowed the PRR to move countless trains using traffic management systems that enabled fluid operation of both freight and passenger traffic within shared track space. Linking towns, cities and industry, the right-of-way of the Pennsylvania Railroad is immediately recognizable and stands out among its peers due to its sheer magnitude. East of Harrisburg, the towering poles and tethers of wires for the electric traction system further define the right of way and has distinction as the only surviving long-distance electrified mainline in the United States.

The right-of-way supported transportation networks vital to the public and industry. An extensive passenger network moved people on long distance, regional, and commuter trains from stations that ranged from monumental metropolitan gateways to a simple frame structure. It was also the supply chain for industry, connecting line side mining, manufacturing, steel production, and deep-water ports. Most of the freight was moved on the Low Grade, a freight bypass built between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. This route was a testament to the PRR’s engineering prowess and a final piece of the railroad’s massive system-wide improvements at the turn of the 20th Century that would make the railroad worthy of the title, Standard Railroad of the World.

Dock Interlocking, Newark, New Jersey. This expansive interlocking was a shining example of the PRR’s use of fly-over trackage to manage the east end of a congested station area and the crossing of the Passaic River on three movable bridges servicing both the PRR and Hudson & Manhattan train operations.

The railroad corridor is an assemblage of engineering feats used to manage high volumes of traffic, setting it apart from other railroads of the era. Ranging from bridge construction, the massive flying junction, the interlocking technologies that controlled them and the electrified rail network east of Harrisburg,  the PRR spared no expense to improve efficiency and capacity. Fortunately, surviving elements provide insight on how the railroad functioned, including the many stationary and movable bridges, terminals, and extensive interlockings throughout the system.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of documenting a railroad that has been gone for more than 45 years is envisioning what was lost in order to understand how the original network worked. Whether a result of recent or ancient railroad history, it is the archeological aspect of this project that requires the most imagination to complete the puzzle that was the Main Line network. There was considerable abandonment and change after the fallout of Penn Central and the creation of Conrail and Amtrak which forever changed the railroad landscape and operations. As a result, defining attributes like the Low Grade and many of the interlocking towers and stations were abandoned, eliminating evidence of the larger unified system.

Former Columbia & Port Deposit Branch crossing the Octoraro Creek and abandoned branch line, Conowingo, Maryland. The loss of the Octoraro branch is one example of how abandonments present a challenge in envisioning the expansive operations of the former Pennsylvania Railroad.

Research is the element that ties everything together: the stories, history, triumphs and failures behind the surviving objects and places. Utilizing historical photographs and maps adds a layer of context to the contemporary images, something that was absent in my earlier work. Understanding the historical significance gives me a better perspective of a place before I visit and allows me to create more informed images. Putting together my findings, and sharing information fuels the creative process. This element in the Main Line project allows me to expand the reach of my audience beyond the rail community, connecting with the casual observer, historian, architect, and engineer alike.

A Conclusion

My goal when I set out was to satisfy a curiosity, but what I think I have done is expand my use of photography to become part of a larger idea interpreting the social, industrial and railroad history in a creative and accessible way. As this project continues I start to ask the question, was the PRR the Standard or the exception in the railroad world, doing things differently literally from the ground up?  When will it be done? I don’t really know. I just know railroads have been a life long interest, and it’s nice to combine it with my creative work. I hope that my approach to railroad photography will inspire others to explore and understand their favorite railroad differently the next time they are out on the main or even a branch line operation.

The Trackside Photographer is pleased to present a gallery displaying 40 images from Michael's project. Click here to view the gallery, or go to the Galleries menu at the top of the page.

Michael FroioPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more Michael’s work and his blog Photographs & History at