Altoona is a third class city in Blair County, Pennsylvania, United States. It is the principal city of the Altoona Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The population was 46,320 at the time of the 2010 Census, making it the tenth most populous city in Pennsylvania. The Altoona MSA includes all of Blair County and was recorded as having a population of 127,089 at the 2010 Census, around 100,000 of which live within a radius of the Altoona city center according to U.S. Census zip code population data. This includes the adjacent boroughs of Hollidaysburg and Duncansville, adjacent townships of Logan, Allegheny, Blair, Frankstown, Antis, and Tyrone, as well as nearby boroughs of Bellwood and Newry.
Having grown around the railroad industry, the city is currently working to recover from industrial decline and urban decentralization experienced in recent decades. The city is home to the Altoona Curve baseball team of the Double A Eastern League, which is the Double A affiliate of the Major League Baseball team Pittsburgh Pirates. It also houses the 75+ year-old Altoona Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Teresa Cheung. Prominent landmarks include the Horseshoe Curve, the Railroaders Memorial Museum, the Juniata Shops of the Altoona Works, the Mishler Theatre, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Jaffa Shrine Center.
As a major railroad town, Altoona was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) in 1849 as the site for a shop complex. Altoona was incorporated as a borough on February 6, 1854, and as a city under legislation approved on April 3, 1867, and February 8, 1868.
The word "Altoona" is a derivative of the Latin word altus, meaning "high".
This explanation for the naming of Altoona is contradicted by Pennsylvania Place Names. Although Altoona, in Blair Country, is popularly known as "the Mountain City," its name has no direct or indirect etymological relation to the Latin adjective altus, signifying "elevated, lofty." Two very different explanations of the origin of this name are current. The one which seems to be most natural and reasonable runs as follows: "The locomotive engineer who ran the first train into Altoona in 1851 was Robert Steele, who died several years ago, aged nearly ninety years. He was then the oldest continuous resident of the city. He was much respected, and had long been one of the private pensioners of Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Steele is authority for the statement that Colonel Beverly Mayer, of Columbia, Pennsylvania, who, as a civil engineer of what was then the Pennsylvania Central Railway, had laid out the tracks in the yards of the newly projected city, named the place Altoona after the city of Altona in Schleswig-Holstein, which became part of Germany in 1864." The German Altona, which lies on the right bank of the Elbe immediately west of Hamburg, is an important railway and manufacturing centre with a population of nearly 200,000. The etymological derivation of the name Altona is not known with certainty, but widely believed to be Low German all to na, meaning "all too near" (sc. Hamburg).
The popular explanation derives the name of Altoona from Allatoona, said to be a Cherokee Indian name. In 1849 David Robinson sold his farm to Archibald Wright of Philadelphia, who transferred the property to his son, John A. Wright, who laid it out in building lots, became one of the founders of Altoona, and was responsible for the naming of the town. According to his own statement, he had spent considerable time in the Cherokee country of Georgia, where he had been especially attracted by the beautiful name of Allatoona, which he had bestowed upon the new town in the belief that it was a Cherokee word meaning "the high lands of great worth." In the Cherokee language there is a word eladuni, which means "high lands," or "where it is high"; but to a Cherokee, Allatoona and eladuni are so different that the former could hardly be derived from the latter.
An older history dated 1883 favored the Cherokee derivation, stating that "Its name is not derived from the Latin word altus nor from the French word alto, as has frequently been asserted and published, but from the beautiful, liquid, and expressive Cherokee word allatoona. This is on the authority of the person who bestowed the name, Mr. Wright, of Philadelphia, who was long a resident of the Cherokee country in Georgia, and an admirer of the musical names of that Indian language."
The town grew rapidly in the late 19th century, its population approximately 2,000 in 1854, 10,000 in 1870, and 20,000 in 1880. The demand for locomotives during the Civil War stimulated much of this growth, and by the later years of the war Altoona was known as a valuable city for the North. It was considered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a target during the Army of Northern Virginia's mid-1863 entry into Pennsylvania, before being repelled at the Battle of Gettysburg. Also notable is the Union's Loyal War Governors' Conference, held at Altoona's Logan House Hotel, which politically backed Abraham Lincoln's recently released Emancipation Proclamation following Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Altoona was also the site of the first Interstate Commission meeting to create and design the Gettysburg National Cemetery following the devastating Battle of Gettysburg. The centrality and convenience of the town's rail transportation was what brought these two important gatherings to the city during the war.
Horseshoe Curve, a curved section of track built by the PRR, has become a tourist attraction and National Historic Landmark. The curve was used to raise trains to a sufficient elevation to cross the Allegheny Ridge to the west. The Allegheny Ridge had been a major barrier and construction of the Erie Canal in New York twenty years earlier already had diverted much port traffic which had used Philadelphia to New York City instead, causing the rise of that city's commercial dominance. Because the curve was an industrial link to the western U.S., Horseshoe Curve was a primary target of eight Nazi saboteurs who had infiltrated the U.S. during World War II by being dropped off by U-boats of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) during Operation Pastorius.
The Altoona Mirror newspaper, founded in 1876 by Harry Slep, is Altoona's oldest media outlet. Today, the newspaper has a daily circulation of 32,000 and a Sunday circulation of 39,000. Approximately 13,000 people read the online edition of the newspaper each day.
Altoona serves as the corporate home to Sheetz, a rapidly growing convenience store chain in the United States. It now has 429 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.