German Saboteurs Ordered to Blow Up Horseshoe Curve – Part 1

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German Saboteurs Ordered to Blow Up Horseshoe Curve – Part 1

Horseshoe Curve–Five Locomotives Pulling a Freight Train

Wreck Horseshoe Curve and Wreck America’s War Effort

Eight German saboteurs put ashore in the US in mid-June of 1942, had been ordered to destroy this had this engineering marvel.

An orthophoto of Horseshoe Curve. Trains headed counterclockwise around the curve are ascending. The visitor center and observation park are at the apex of the curve, and a reservoir is located in the valley spanned by it.

The photo above is the famous “Horseshoe Curve” originally built by the Pennsylvania Railroad before the American Civil War. It is located in Blair County, Pennsylvania, outside of Altoona, PA.

Horseshoe Curve was the most critical component of the American rail network on the east coast from the time of its completion in 1854 through the era of World War Two and after. It is still in use today by the successor to the Pennsylvania Rail Road (and a number of other rail companies), Norfolk Southern railway. Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania eliminated a major choke-point for rail traffic on the east coast of the US when it was built. This action both lowered freight costs and contributed greatly to increases in productivity.

Any competent rail expert, and the German Army and German Abwehr (spy service) had plenty, could look at a rail map and in a minute see that Horseshoe Curve was the key to disrupting American rail traffic in a major way. But Horseshoe Curve was already famous in the world of rail-roading so the Germans knew this already.

Horseshoe Curve in autumn

This massive curved rail line facilitated movement of Union troops during the Civil War and in the even more terrible wars to come. Depending on the era, anyone who lived close-by and enjoyed watching the rail traffic would have seen many a troop train looping around Horseshoe Curve.

While the grade is just over 2%, which doesn’t seem such a big number, it takes a lot of muscle to move a freight train in that situation. In the video below, you will see that it takes FIVE heavy locomotives to pull a freight train up and around the curve. Short clip and very cool if you like trains.

Prior to the breakout of the American Civil War, the largest organizations in the United States were the railroads. Corporate executives who ran these huge business concerns were the most highly paid and admired businessmen in the US. Rail lines changed America from a loose knit union of states to an actual country and had a significant impact on the military and vice-versa.

US Military Railroad locomotive “W.H. Whiton” (built by William Mason in 1862) and Lincoln’s presidential car, later his funeral car. Photo from January 1865.

From the time of its formation and for decades thereafter, all cadets from West Point graduated with degrees in Civil Engineering. In fact, West Point was the only engineering school in the US until after the War Between the States. (Hence the US Army Corps of Engineers which has constructed some of the largest public works in the US and continues to do so to this day.)

Excavating for a “Y” at Devereux Station on the orange and Alexandria Railroad. Brig. Gen. Hermann Haupt, Chief of Construction and Transportation, US Military Railroads, is standing on the bank supervising the work. The “General Haupt,” the engine pulling the train in the photograph, was named in Haupt’s honor. Photographed by Capt. Andrew J. Russell. 111-B-4877.

According to the caption for the following picture from Pennsylvania Railroad Photographs:

The area around the tracks is covered by cinders from the stacks of thousands of steam locomotives like this I1s climbing the Horseshoe Curve with a freight.


Pennsylvania Rail Road steam locomotive hauling a train up the Horseshoe Curve circa 1945. This would have been a familiar sight to US Army soldiers and logistics personnel during the war.

Officers who had graduated from West Point, often resigned their commissions after a number of years to return to civilian life and get work which paid more than the Army — which wasn’t difficult. These men often went to work for the rapidly expanding railroad companies in the US. From this experience, many of these men learned how to organize, lead, and administer organizations which employed large groups of men. Indeed, the railroads as a whole employed far more men than were in the ranks of the pre-Civil War US Army.

When war came, most of these West Point graduates returned to serve in either the Union or Confederate Armies. Failures in command often occurred because many general officers did not have the ability to conceptualize military campaigns in terms of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of men.

Major General George B. McClellan, US Army and the first Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, had left the army in 1857 to serve as chief civil engineer for several of the largest railroads in the country. While McClellan failed to achieve results on the field of battle, his meticulous organization of the Army of the Potomac served the nation well.

[Source: Youtube. Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Railroaders Memorial Museum, Wikipedia, US National Archives, Pennsylvania Railroad Photographs, and Wikipedia.]

By | 2016-02-02T14:39:14+00:00 April 3rd, 2013|World War Two, ww2|0 Comments

About the Author:

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: