The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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August 14, 2012

In Altoona, steam power returns for a brief time

ALTOONA — There were walkie-talkies tuned to the railroad dispatch office.

There were smartphones connected to a tracking website.

Someone said, "I heard a whistle."

Another person replied, "No, it's my phone."

But finally, over a notch in the trees above the western end of the Horseshoe Curve, coal smoke rose, followed by rhythmic clanking, like the agitations of an old wringer washer.

Monday afternoon, for the first time since 1977, a steam locomotive chugged around the famous railroad landmark as part of Norfolk Southern's 30th anniversary.

That was before he was born, said John McDonald of Cleveland, who came with his brother to get the curve's 180-degree view of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society's No. 765 on its way from Pittsburgh to Enola - where it will power an excursion train for Norfolk Southern Railway, as part of a series of employee-appreciation trips.

The antique Nickel Plate Railroad engine arrived around 2:30 p.m., 2 hours late, and the anticipation was like waiting for a Steelers kickoff at Heinz Field, said Chris Hess of Duncansville, a "semi-railroad buff" who came to the event accidentally, when he brought visiting cousins from California to visit the curve.

"It was worth the wait," said Steve Kepner of Buffalo, who likewise didn't know that the sight of the steam locomotive would be part of a visit to the curve with his wife and in-laws.

Hess, 59, remembers steam engines still in service when he was a youngster in Lewistown.

He thought they were neat, but was too young to remember specifics about their effect on him.

Steam engines are certainly more demonstrative than the diesels that replaced them.

No. 765 was discharging white steam low and gray smoke high, blasting a throaty whistle like an organ pipe.

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