Train traveling around the Horseshoe Curve

Railroad City

Penn State Altoona Communications students worked in their senior capstone class to create a documentary on the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad that was recently aired on WPSU-TV.
By: Therese Boyd

Just because someone is born and raised in a certain area does not guarantee that they know local history. For people from Altoona, the Horseshoe Curve may just be where the tourists go, not a Nazi target in World War II. The Mishler Theatre might only be where the local community theatre performs, not a must-stop on the vaudeville circuit for national acts. And certainly, Altoona never played a role in the Underground Railroad.

But it did. At one point or another in its history, Altoona was all of those things. And now more people will learn about those events because a group of communications majors at Penn State Altoona put together a documentary, History of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, which was shown on WPSU on November 4.

History of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona

This documentary, produced by students in Penn State Altoona’s communications program, aired on WPSU-TV on Saturday, November 4, 2023.

“The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona,” produced by students enrolled in COMM 490A, explores the origins of the industry in central Pennsylvania and explains how the railroad in the Altoona area served as a major contributing factor to the nation’s industrial, commercial and cultural development. It also details the early 19th-century origins of railroad construction in Pennsylvania while exploring the complexities of 20th-century transportation challenges. The documentary concludes with an investigation of the importance of today’s railroad industry.

The video was produced in COMM 490A, a senior-level capstone course. Student contributors are Kolby Cowher, Michael Filardi, Samantha Mohney, and Brittany Schroeder, all communications majors at Penn State Altoona.

The documentary was produced by Troy McCarty with historical research supervised by Jewel Weyandt. The project was narrated by Isaac Swanson. In addition, Mark Frederick, a local documentary producer and Penn State Altoona graduate, served as executive producer and mentor on the project.

Credit: Penn State Altoona COMM 490A Students, Fall 2023

The students in Professor Bob Trumpbour’s COMM 490A class were tossing out ideas for their senior capstone project when Jewel Weyandt had an idea. “Originally I was thinking about ghosts and the tunnel under the Horseshoe Curve,” she says. But Trumpbour encouraged the students to go larger “and focus on the railroad. Everyone in the class thought that was a good idea.”

Research started with a simple field trip—the Railroaders Memorial Museum just ten minutes from campus. There the students were introduced to the history of the railroad in Altoona. During that visit, Weyandt met local historian Mark Frederick. “I brought a paper and a pen and Mr. Frederick and I sat down and worked out the subjects. We sat there for a while and talked and I came out with a rough draft,” Weyandt explains.

From there it was a matter of dividing up the subjects to be tackled, researching the history of each subject, filming the interviews with local historians, writing a script for the narration, putting video together with the words, and editing, editing, editing—all in just fourteen weeks. Students involved included Weyandt, Troy McCarty, Isaac Swanson, Sam Mohney, Kolby Cowher, Brittany Schroeder, and Michael Filardi.

McCarty took the lead in editing. “I put together all the clips,” he says. “I worked with others to get the b-roll together.” To the uninitiated, a “b-roll” is all those pictures that move a story along or, as he says, “to give viewer a little more insight on what we’re talking about. We can just stitch that into the documentary to not only describe it but to show it, for example, the Horseshoe Curve.”

Originally, the video was only supposed to be fifteen minutes long—to show how the city benefited from the railroad—but the group soon realized that would be too brief. “We had all the information that if we did fifteen minutes it would feel spotty and have a bunch of jumps,” McCarty says. So they worked on fifteen minutes at a time. “We would meet in a group at the library and go over the entire film, making sure we had the right cues in the right spot. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page—what would be best for the film and what would be best for the viewer.”

Swanson served as narrator and edited some as well. “I felt really honored to be voted to be the voiceover,” he says. “It was a big group effort for putting it together. I helped coordinate interviews with some of my project-mates.” Although a script was written, he still suggested changes. “I made some edits when it came to things on the voiceover. Even in the middle of production, I made some suggestions to make it sound more ‘presentable.’”

The students were free to pursue their own interests while doing their research. “I researched the hotels,” Weyandt says. “I thought that was cool that people used to summer there—and how fancy downtown used to be.”

Schroeder gained a new outlook on Altoona when she discovered during her research that “George Burns had included Altoona in the title of his autobiography! I think it’s so cool that such a high-profile celebrity (at the time) knew about our little town and had frequented it. I feel like in a small way it helped bring the documentary to life, because we always hear about how back then when the railroad was at its peak Altoona was a bustling city. It really helped put that time period into perspective for me.”

Mohney enjoyed doing the interviews: “It was awesome to talk to different people from all over the area on their vast knowledge on the railroad. Overall, it was a fun, yet challenging project that I’m proud to say I was a part of.”

Interviewees for the project include Elizabeth Shope, a National Park Service ranger from the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site; Jared Frederick, assistant teaching professor of history at Penn State Altoona and avid historian, on the history of the Horseshoe Curve as well as on World War II; Harriett Gaston, academic advisor at Penn State Altoona and community historian, who runs the Blair County African American History site, on the Underground Railroad; Jared Frederick on sports in Altoona; and John Trumpbour, a labor historian at Harvard University, on the rail workers’ strike. The video comes to a fitting conclusion with an interview with instructor Bryan Schlake on the rail transportation engineering program at Penn State Altoona, the only one of its kind in the country.

The historians who were interviewed appreciated the students’ efforts to learn and to educate. “It’s a good start in informing newcomers and younger Blair County residents and in reminding Blair County older residents of the influence and impact of the Pennsylvania Railroad on the history and people of Altoona and beyond,” Gaston notes.

Credit goes to the students, says Mark Frederick. “I advised the students on what topics to research, they did the rest. They worked incredibly hard on this project and the end result speaks for itself.”

While the students were the ones to make the final decisions on the project, they don’t hesitate to acknowledge the support they received from faculty as well. Even before he came to Penn State Altoona McCarty, a former Marine, was researching what major he might choose. “I checked out the comms field and I saw PR and journalism. I had some skills that transferred to comms; it’s what I wanted to pursue. I talked to Dr. Kevin Moist [Penn State Altoona’s COMM program director] and he confirmed to me that this was what I wanted to do.” Moist continues to be a mentor for McCarty. “I always have him to help me out. When there’s things in my writing, he helps me get there. He’s been a huge help.”

Despite the amount of work involved in the project, Swanson says, “I 110% enjoyed it. It was pretty freeing.” He also appreciated the faculty input. “Dr. Bob [Trumpbour] has always supported us. He’s given us some really good advice.”

Reflecting on her experience, Weyandt wants other students to know this: “I never thought I would do anything like this in college. Other college kids need to know that they can do things like this if they want to—they can do something fun.”