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The Horseshoe Curve: Sabotage and Subversion in the Railroad City Paperback – 2010
This 455 page book tells the thrilling tale of three little known events in American history: the Nazi plot to destroy the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA, the FBIs arrest of 225 Altoonans in 1942 as "alien enemies" and the controversial internment of German and Italian Americans in the U.S., and the human drama of building the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Horseshoe Curve. "'The Horseshoe Curve' seamlessly blends information from 300 sources, including FBI files acquired through the Freedom of Information Act to tell this riveting story."
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The narrative is divided into three parts. The first one describes the German sabotage mission that landed four men on the coast of Long Island and four others on the coast of northern Florida in June 1942. The Germans were assigned eleven targets to dismantle in order to cripple the United States: key factories, transportation centers, and public works facilities that were located in the Northeast, Midwest, or Mid-South. Included on the list was the Horseshoe Curve, which led the main railroad line west of Altoona and through the Allegheny Mountains toward Pittsburgh. But the eight saboteurs never had a chance to implement their plans. Almost immediately, they were caught and their mission was thwarted, thanks to one turncoat in the group. Within two months of their shoreline arrivals, six of the eight men were executed, and the other two (one of them, the informant) were imprisoned. McIlnay supplies many details of their trials and even the minute-by-minute blows of their executions. If you ever wanted to know anything about this tale, you will probably find it here.
The second part of the book deals with "subversion." At the same time that the Germans were planning their mischief, J. Edgar Hoover was assembling a massive list of "alien enemies" who lived in the United States and who represented potential danger to the country's safety. We forget, if we ever knew, that some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were sent to internment camps in the 1940s, just like the Japanese-Americans were. On July 1, 1942, 225 potential alien enemies were arrested in Altoona ... and then just as quickly, they were released. Author McIlnay does his best to track down the real meat of this story, but he ends up merely teasing us. He finds some people whose relatives had been involved in the arrest, but he chooses not to identify them or even to tell generically of their experiences. Instead, he devotes his pages to J. Edgar Hoover and the larger reach of his initiative. The local element is noticeably absent here, except in the reproductions of the newspaper headlines of the day.
The third part of the book is a history of the Pennsylvania Railroad itself, and how the Horseshoe Curve came to be designed and built. Actually, McIlnay first steps back to the days of Pennsylvania's canal system of the 1820s, which eventually lead to the beginning of the railroads in the Keystone State. (But not before he gives us a history of railroading in general, especially in England.) Clearly the hero is John Edgar Thomson, who was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad for 22 years. He was also the chief engineer who defined the route and supervised construction of the Horseshoe Curve. Rail fans may particularly want to absorb the details supplied in this section, which go well beyond just the creation of the Curve. But since this history laid the foundation for the possible German sabotage, as well as the arrest of subversives in the state's largest railroad city, we are caused to travel backward as we turn the pages of this book. Another author might have reversed the order of the tales.
Author McIlnay is admittedly at his best at the end of the journey, when he himself makes a pilgrimage to Horseshoe Curve to see what he can see. The mystique of this feat of engineering comes when you stand in the middle of it, and when trains are clattering all around you, on their way up or down the mountain. (Don't follow the author's rambling directions on how to reach the Curve, however. I-99 is a north-south route that he insists on describing in east-west terms. If you're interested in railroads and the Curve, you should first visit the Railroaders Memorial Museum in downtown Altoona. It's a great place to start your tour, and maps to the Curve are available there. You'll also get a discount on admission.)
I understand all too well the desire to share everything one knows about a topic. I hesitate to chastise another author for something I tend to do myself. McIlnay goes above and beyond in the habit, however. This book is at times a tangential and therefore tedious read. I am glad I made it through it, because I wanted to know these stories. Other readers may not be as forgiving, and may abandon the venture after the opening section.
The book is organized into three sections, the first two of which are interrelated. In the first section, the author discusses the 1942 Nazi plot to destroy several sites located on American soil - all of which were critical to the Allied war effort and one of which included Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Pennsylvania. The author carefully details the preparation of the Nazi sabotage effort, its failed implementation, and the succeeding trial and conviction of the saboteurs. It makes for interesting reading, but it repeats material that has been covered in detail in other secondary sources - a fact which is quickly revealed upon a review of the endnotes and bibliography.
The second section purports to investigate at the effects of the failed Nazi sabotage on the city of Altoona. In 1942, Altoona was a city teeming with immigrants, many of whom originally hailed from Germany and Italy, with whom the United States was at war. Thus, the author sought to explore how the United States government treated potential "alien enemies" in Altoona. The author admits that, when it came to this question, he hit a brick wall, having failed to find anyone in the area who knew anything of consequence about any roundup of "alien enemies" in the Altoona area. Switching gears, the author discusses the treatment of German and Italian "alien enemies" on a national scale, including a review of the criteria used to classify immigrants as alien enemies and the living conditions to which they were subjected once classified and detained as such.
The final section of the book provides a cursory history of the Pennsylvania Railroad, including the conditions that led to its founding, the building of the railroad, and finally the death of its visionary president, J. Edgar Thomson, in 1874. The decision to traverse the Alleghenies via the Horseshoe Curve warrants only a brief mention.
All three sections are interesting to read. That said, none of the sections present any new information that could not have already been found in other available secondary sources. This reader got the impression that the author wanted to publish a book, but didn't have enough material for any single subject - but did have enough if he could somehow combine three subjects. The result was a hodgepodge without any coherent thesis.
One pet peeve about the book was the way in which the publisher rendered numeric values. For example, on page 324, we have the sentence "The Pennsylvania Railroad began in Harrisburg, which was three hundred ten feet above sea level, and ran one hundred thirty-five miles to Altoona, at eleven hundred sixty-eight feet above tide." I have never seen a publisher spell out numeric values to such an extent, and it detracted from the reading experience, and this reader has to stop and convert, for example, "eleven hundred sixty-eight" to"1168.'
All in all, this is a good book if you're looking for light reading on three disparate topics. If you're looking for a detailed analysis with a coherent thesis, then look elsewhere.