Steamtown: Riding the rails to a bygone era ALL ABOARD

May 15, 1994|By Michael A. Schuman | Michael A. Schuman,Special to The Sun

The place is coarse and gritty. Steam engines stand stewing in their own sweat, and industrial buildings squat, overseeing rolling stock as they have for years. Here are trains in their natural habitat, not in some spiffed-up museum gallery, roped-off and protected, but accessible and outdoors in a railroad yard, as they were in their heyday.

There are many railroad museums in North America, but Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., is extraordinary. The National Park Service, casting an eye toward historical accuracy, says Steamtown is one of the few places where collections of railroad engines and cars are interpreted and displayed in a natural setting. In this case, it's Scranton's Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railyards, a relic from the days when Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House and the interstate highway system was as futuristic as space travel.

Steamtown is one of the National Park Service's newest offerings -- though it's not totally new. Once a private foundation, Steamtown operated for 20 years as a tourist attraction in Bellows Falls, Vt., before leaving for Scranton in 1983, citing low visitation in New England.

Situated within easy access to three interstate highways, Scranton seemed to promise more visitors than sparsely settled Vermont. But after four years in Pennsylvania, Steamtown was losing money again from low attendance.

But the collection of 35 steam locomotives and 78 cars, regarded as one of the country's finest, attracted the attention of Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph McDade, who felt the nation's steam railroad heritage should be preserved. His efforts paid off when the Steamtown Foundation donated the equipment to the National Park Service in 1988.

The park hasn't been without controversy. It has drawn the ire of critics who see it as a pork-barrel project benefiting Mr. McDade, his constituents and few others. The critics claim the operating cost is exorbitant and that the Scranton rail yard and the collection aren't all that historically significant.

The park's assistant superintendent, Calvin Hite, says the yearly operating costs of more than three dozen national park properties exceed that of Steamtown. Regarding the collection, Mr. Hite says several of the locomotives are among the very few of their type remaining in the country, including the huge Big Boy, once part of the Union Pacific Railroad. And he stresses the historic environment, emphasizing that the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railyards are still active. Modern freight trains pass through several times a week.

"This is not just an excursion ride or a collection of railroad cars in a modern building," says Mr. Hite. "We never claimed Steamtown to be the most significant railroad yard or train collection in the country. Where you tell a story is not as important as the story you tell. We are preserving a piece of the past."

Over the next few years at the sprawling railroad yard, existing structures will be refurbished and given new lives as exhibit buildings, a visitor center and a theater. Restoration of the 13-stall roundhouse and construction of a new turntable was completed in 1992, and tours through the structure are available.

Currently, visitors can also climb to the cupola of a 1938-model red caboose to savor the expansive view once privy to the train crew, who cooked, rested, ate, stored equipment and kept records there. Then, try to make sense out of the jumble of knobs, gears and levers inside a locomotive. Or inspect the Railway Post Office car, a vintage 1913 car from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Slots and canvas sacks are in abundance, reminders of the times when sorting mail on trains was a daily practice. In its day, only armed postal workers were permitted inside.

Or hop aboard one of the gray and maroon coaches pulled by Canadian Pacific locomotive No. 3254 or Canadian National locomotive No. 2317 for an excursion ride of about 2 1/4 hours. The ride takes you across 26 miles and back 60 years. You might not find puffs of Lucky Strikes and Camels swirling through the air inside your passenger car, as you would have six decades ago, but you will still see whiffs of steam emanating from the engine.

On board, park rangers discuss life during the 1920s and '30s, a time when travelers not adventurous enough to drive their Nashes or Hudsons on long journeys ventured by rail. You will hear tales of the immigrant train-yard workers as you rumble along the rails and through the 1 1/3 -mile Nay Aug tunnel. Says Steamtown's Ken Ganz, "Kids love the dark. It's the adults that get scared.

Steamtown staff member Mark Morgan talks about strikes, accidents and the life of a signalman in the dead of winter.

"The cold was so biting," he says, "that a signalman recalled that he couldn't bend his legs or straighten them out, although the worst part of winter work was keeping his feet and fingers warm."

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