ALTOONA — There were walkie-talkies tuned to the railroad dispatch office.
There were smartphones connected to a tracking website.
Someone said, "I heard a whistle."
Another person replied, "No, it's my phone."
But finally, over a notch in the trees above the western end of the Horseshoe Curve, coal smoke rose, followed by rhythmic clanking, like the agitations of an old wringer washer.
Monday afternoon, for the first time since 1977, a steam locomotive chugged around the famous railroad landmark as part of Norfolk Southern's 30th anniversary.
That was before he was born, said John McDonald of Cleveland, who came with his brother to get the curve's 180-degree view of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society's No. 765 on its way from Pittsburgh to Enola - where it will power an excursion train for Norfolk Southern Railway, as part of a series of employee-appreciation trips.
The antique Nickel Plate Railroad engine arrived around 2:30 p.m., 2 hours late, and the anticipation was like waiting for a Steelers kickoff at Heinz Field, said Chris Hess of Duncansville, a "semi-railroad buff" who came to the event accidentally, when he brought visiting cousins from California to visit the curve.
"It was worth the wait," said Steve Kepner of Buffalo, who likewise didn't know that the sight of the steam locomotive would be part of a visit to the curve with his wife and in-laws.
Hess, 59, remembers steam engines still in service when he was a youngster in Lewistown.
He thought they were neat, but was too young to remember specifics about their effect on him.
Steam engines are certainly more demonstrative than the diesels that replaced them.
No. 765 was discharging white steam low and gray smoke high, blasting a throaty whistle like an organ pipe.
The diesel locomotive behind it in the train for "protection" in case of breakdown or lack of power showed little evidence of its power.
Trains fascinate us because they were the first means of locomotion that made us swifter than animals - or our running selves, said Wayne York, excursion manager for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and former executive director of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum.
Until railroads, we were "no faster than the Pharaohs," York said.
The McDonald brothers inherited their fascination from their dad, a rail fan.
They've been "chasing this locomotive all over Ohio and Pennsylvania," John McDonald said.
No. 765 is one of only six operating steam locomotives in the country and the only one that works east of the Mississippi River, York said.
When it arrived, most of the approximately 100 observers near the tracks at the curve aimed cameras or lifted cellphones.
As soon as the train was out of sight, many bolted so they could see it a second time as it passed through downtown Altoona.
No. 765 will be coming back in the other direction Aug. 20, this time climbing instead of descending the curve - a "struggle" that should attract as many as 1,000 spectators, York said.
That will be the premier train watching event in the nation this year, he said.