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Dedication Chapter For Martin Radisewitz

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Chapter Nine - The Roundhouse
This chapter is dedicated to
Martin Radisewitz
Altoona's Timekeeper
When he blew the Roundhouse whistle
the people of Altoona set their watches.
John R. Thurston
1887 - 2004
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The Altoona Roundhouse
John R. Thurston
railroad roundhouse is a series of large stalls designed to
hold locomotives and other railroad cars. It is built around
a central turntable, basically a bridge that rotates from a center
point. An engine moves, or is moved, onto the tracks of a
turntable which then may be rotated until the tracks are in line
with those of the intended stall. It can then be provided with
necessary repairs or maintenance.
To those of us growing up in the Altoona of the 1930's, our
roundhouse was far more than that described in the preceding
paragraph. It was a vibrant, living, breathing entity, a centerpiece
of our community. It operated 24/7, glowing and rumbling
throughout the night. It emitted smoke and steam along with no
end of clanging as the men worked on the engines. The
railroaders, working, coming and going, added to its identity and
its liveliness. We kept time by the roundhouse's whistle. It
signaled the change of shifts, the onset and end of eating breaks,
and outbreak of an Altoona fire in need of volunteer firefighters.
The rare sound of four long whistles was ominous, it stood for a
railroad wreck. People set their watches by this whistle. One
couldn't have imagined Altoona without its roundhouse.
The original roundhouse was built in 1887, just eight years after
some land had been designated for a railroad center in "East Eau
Claire." The old West Wisconsin Railroad needed a place for a
rail yard, a depot, and a roundhouse. The large plot of land was
about three miles east of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This
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development, of course, later became Altoona. The roundhouse
was expanded in 1913 and 1947. More than 400 Altoona people
worked for the railroad in 1941.
Gradually, however, the roundhouse and most of the Altoona rail
yard succumbed to obsolescence, finally becoming obsolete and
of no use to the railroad. Larger locomotives, diesel engines, and
changing demands contributed to its demise. Its turntable was no
longer big enough to accommodate the larger engines.
In this later time period, in order to turn larger locomotives
around and head them in a different direction, the railroad came
to rely upon what came to be known as a "Y." It was a large set
of tracks shaped as a "Y" with a track across the top. An example
of its operation will spell out its usage. A westward-headed
engine would pull onto the track on the top of the "Y," e.g,
facing west. It would then back down north onto the right or
western track of the "Y," stopping at the bottom. It would then be
switched onto the track on the eastern or left side of the "Y" and
would move south up to and on to the original track, the one on
top of the ""Y." It would now be facing east.
For several years, this essentially deserted roundhouse was used
to rehabilitate a railroad engine (Soo Line #2719) and a few
railroad cars. This work was undertaken by a dedicated group of
However without compelling use for it by the Union Pacific, the
roundhouse was destined for destruction. Some final efforts were
made in 1997 to save it. It was thought that it could be renovated
and transformed into a tourist attraction called the Altoona
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Roundhouse. Locomotives and railroad memorabilia could be
put on display in an interpretive center within it. Excursion trains
could use it as gathering point. Downtown Altoona businesses
might profit from its presence. The success of this plan was
dependent on substantial, sustained, and energetic community
support. This wasn't forthcoming and the roundhouse
surrendered to the wrecking ball in early 2004. There is now only
a cluttered 7-acre tract of sand where the roundhouse once so
proudly stood.
These following pictures show this roundhouse at various times
in its history.
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The Altoona Coal Chute and Water Tower (Roundhouse on the left).
Cars filled with coal were pushed to the top of the chute. Gondola doors then opened to fill the
engines driven underneath.
Photo circa 1913
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Photos of the Altoona Roundhouse built in 1913
The Roundhouse was built in 1882 and enlarged in 1911. That burned in 1912 and a new one
was built in 1913. Cement block Depot was also built in 1913. The Roundhouse was closed in
the mid-1970’s.
By Judy Lenz-Adams.
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Turntable at Altoona’s Roundhouse
John R. Thurston
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By Dan Lyksett
Leader-Telegram staff
Photos by David Jones
LTOONA — There still are cinders under foot, and the oily diesel smell of hardworking steel
and iron machines permeates the air. Sharp eyes spot peeling paint and pin-holes in the roof,
but visionary eyes see a renovated, lively, functioning tourist draw called the Altoona Roundhouse.
"We think there's a tremendous amount of potential here, the chance to preserve something that's
really special," says Charlie Schaaf of Altoona, one of tfle railroad-enthusiasts hoping to build a
future for this historic building.
"There's a railway museum in Green Bay, and the Duluth (Minn.) transportation museum, but
we have something they don't have: An operating roundhouse next to a functioning rail line and
right in a railway town."
That the Altoona Roundhouse is in the city is no surprise. The oldest part of the structure was
built in the early 1880s, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing in Altoona.
Altoona grew up around the railroad, originally platted as East Eau Claire in 1881 because the
old West Wisconsin Railway needed land for their rail yard, depot and roundhouse, according to
Gerald Hagen's book "A History of Altoona."
There's still a functioning switching yard and main line running through town, not to mention
two taverns with railroad themes — the 400 Club, Rollie's Coach Club and the Rail Haven — and
a high school bearing the nick-name Railroaders,
"Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie had the timber industry — Altoona has the
railroad," Schaaf said.
The roundhouse might have a bright future because enough people in the city rose up to stop its
Its current owner, the Union Pacific Railroad, had previously announced that the structure was to
be demolished. The City Council set up an ad hoc committee to work with the railroad on other
options, with the result that ownership of the building and about seven acres of land surrounding it
will be transferred to the city sometime late this year or early next year.
The next step will be determined by how much of that enthusiasm continues.
"We were really hustling to meet the deadline to stop that wrecking ball," said Dan Jones, a City
Councilman and a member of the ad hoc committee. "The next step is to get some sort of
organization going that can take control, begin raising and receiving funds, and develop a plan
and a vision for what they'd like to see out here. As a city we're pretty much operating from a
position of limited funds, so it's going to take that group to turn this into something that could end
up being pretty awesome."
The first items on the agenda for that future group are relatively modest — a new roof, some
cleaning up around the site, possibly a coat of paint.
But as Schaaf and Jones tour the facility, with its still-functioning turntable and the locomotive
stalls with their rails radiating out from the center, they present a grander vision.
"You start with maybe just some static displays, the 2719 (a Soo Line steam locomotive being
renovated in the roundhouse) and maybe another locomotive here," Jones said. "But you go out to
the high end and you can see a whole interpretive center, a rail center, with excursion trains
originating here and a pedestrian walk going from here over function tracks to downtown. That
could help turn a pretty minor business district into a pretty nice niche shopping area, with
restaurants, train-related memorabilia, things like that.
"It's pretty far down the line, but there's real potential there."
Now that the title to the building seems secure, Schaaf said the next step will be finding the
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people who want to help develop the project.
"Railroad enthusiasts are a very enthusiastic, very tightly-knit group, and I can't-think of another
group that could pull this off," he said. "They're going to be people who offer time, money and
expertise. It's just a matter of helping that group get going and helping define the vision." Lyksett
can be reached at 830-5840 or (800) 236-7077.
Work on the oldest section of the Altoona Roundhouse began in the early 1880s, with a major
expansion built in 1913 and a third built in 1947. It is one of the oldest roundhouses in the country
that has been in continual use for its original purpose.
A roundhouse contains a series of stalls that hold locomotives and other railroad cars. It is built
in an arc around a central "turntable," basically a bridge that rotates from a center point. A car is
pulled onto the turntable, which in turn rotates until the tracks line up with the intended stall.
• In 1941 more than 400 people worked at the Altoona Railroad yards.
Above: Looking from the roundhouse window, the turntable is visible. Right: This is how Altoona Railway Center backers envi-
sion their completed restoration project.
Now that the Altoona Roundhouse has been spared the
wrecking ball, it's up to a
group of volunteers to see
that the dream of developing
it stays on track.
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Railroad repairmen work inside the
Altoona Roundhouse, with historic Soo
Line Locomotive No. 2719 in the
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Proposed Roundhouse Museum in 1997 – Roundhouse was Razed in 2004
Altoona Roundhouse as it Appears in 2009 – 14 Acres of Sand
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