New businesses, increased traffic, a center for the arts, a hub for “eds and meds.” Those are some of the things that come to mind when most of us think of downtown Altoona today. Rewind to the city’s early years, however, and the scene might have been eerily different.
“Sometimes the truth is more terrifying than fiction,” said Jared Frederick, a professor of History at Penn State Altoona.
Just in time for Halloween, Frederick, through his volunteer work with the Blair County Historical Society, is exploring the haunted history of downtown Altoona by lantern light.
According to Frederick, who has garnered information about the city’s past through newspaper archives, 10th, 11th, and 12th Avenues have been the site of fires, train wrecks, and mysterious deaths since the 1840s. He pointed out some of the grim deaths that occurred in the 1850s and railroad workers meeting rather grisly fates in the 1930s.
See for yourself. The Downtown Altoona Haunted History Tours will be held on October 27 at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. The cost is $20 per person. Registration is available on the Blair County Historical Society’s website.
Participants should gather at the parking lot of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum. Bring a flashlight, wear comfortable shoes, and be prepared for about a mile of walking, Frederick stressed.
“It’s my hope that people will be entertained, but that they will also learn something new and something factual about the city’s past,” he stated. “At some of these places, we’ll be at the spots were incidents actually happened. In some cases, people are going to have to imagine a cityscape as it was more than a century ago. Ultimately, people who go on the tour can decide for themselves whether any of the stories hold water or not.”
The Downtown Altoona Haunted History Tours are just some of the frightfully good times the Blair County Historical Society is scaring up this Halloween. Besides the downtown backdrop, what better venue is there at this time of year than Altoona’s infamous Baker Mansion?
“Every small town has some folklore, myth, or legend about a particular section of the town or a building,” said Joe DeFrancesco, Executive Director of the Blair County Historical Society. “In this case, it’s Baker Mansion. Obviously with Halloween, it’s very fitting to bring out the ghosts and goblins and hype up the folklore.”
If you are in the mood for a good whodunit, you are in luck! After a several year hiatus, the Murder Mystery Tour is returning to Baker Mansion this Friday and Saturday, October 20 and 21, from 7:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m. Try out your detective skills as you walk the halls of the mansion and retrace the steps of a killer.
DeFrancesco is looking forward to bringing back the attraction this year.
“We’ve always had a lot of fun with them in the past,” he noted.
The Murder Mystery Tour is $10 per person. Registration is available on the Blair County Historical Society’s website.
More hauntingly good fun is planned at the mansion. Michael Allison will present White Ladies, Hairy Beasts and Things That Go Bump in the Night on October 25 at 7:00 p.m.
The talk, part of the Baker Mansion Lecture Series, will examine the legends, folktales, and mysteries of Pennsylvania. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
All of this comes on the heels of spook-tacular event last week – the premier of Ghost Hunts at Baker Mansion. Guests were encouraged to bring cameras, flashlights, and paranormal detective equipment to catch a glimpse of the spirits who supposedly roam the homestead.
The Halloween season is a great time to showcase new events to attract people to the 170 year old Baker Mansion, DeFrancesco reminded.
“We want to make sure our October events are fresh, exciting, and something new,” he added.
So enjoy Halloween in boo-tiful Altoona, and check out what the Blair County Historical Society has to offer – if you dare!
By Tony DeGol