Full Steam Ahead!

Pennsylvania: Train museums capture the sights, sounds and smells of the days when railroads helped build America and transport its people. Hop aboard!

February 28, 1999|By Jim Landers | Jim Landers,Dallas Morning News

It echoes in the thump of an off-balance washer, the whistle of a tea kettle, the whoosh of a gas furnace, the screech of a worn brake. But a real steam locomotive sounds like nothing else. It is an aural fingerprint on the imagination.

Your ears will recognize Steamtown.

This National Historic Site, formally opened in Scranton, Pa., by the National Park Service in 1995, may already be firmly lodged in the American imagination as a classic example of pork-barrel legislation -- a park the Park Service did not want.

But the millions of tax dollars spent have brought steam trains back in a museum rich with the sounds of machines that moved a nation and stirred its people for 150 years.

Pennsylvania has railroad memories in every corner, and eastern Pennsylvania is home to three world-class railroad museums. If you are among the 5 million visitors annually to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, you should take a trip to Strasburg to see the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the Toy Train Museum of the Train Collectors Association.

And if you've traveled that far, you should also come to Steamtown, a reawakening in downtown Scranton of the Lackawanna Railroad's roundhouse, repair shops and passenger line.

On view at these three museums are machines measured by their names: Big Boy, Mountain, Thermos Bottle, Floor Toy.

We'll get to the toys later. First, the big ones.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania has 34 locomotives on display, nearly all of them steam veterans of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Two dozen are kept in a cavernous hall reminiscent of the high-ceiling city stations where sunlight and soot swirled beneath glass and steel. The setting helps evoke the grandeur of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once the world's largest with 7,000 locomotives and a quarter of a million freight and passenger cars.

You can board several passenger cars, touch the horsehair seats and marvel at the primitive heaters and the ornate lighting. You can look through the windows at the china and silver of Pullman dining cars, and the deep-pillowed luxury of the company's sleepers.

In 1913, there were more than 10,000 Pullman sleepers on American rails, giving rest to 100,000 passengers a night in what was the world's biggest hotel chain.

One of the locomotives on display at the museum was a celebrity in its day. Pennsylvania Railroad's 7002, an Atlantic-class passenger locomotive, set a world speed record of 127.1 mph in 1905. The honor won that day is remembered with American flags that flank its smoke box.

Several different types of steam locomotives are on display, including three from old logging railroads that used sidearm cylinders -- a Climax, a Heisler and a Shay.

This great hall of locomotives and passenger cars is too quiet, however. The museum's strength is the authenticity of its rolling stock. Its weakness is in the interpretive areas, which lack audio and video reminders of what these machines were like under power. There is a narrated slide show near the depot scene in the hall that serves as a short introduction to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The story deserves more.

The yard outside includes a turntable with several cars and locomotives that the Friends of the Railroad Museum hope to restore. The biggest locomotives sitting in the yard are a Pennsylvania Railroad Mountain-class and a Nickel Plate Road Berkshire.

Several times a day, these steel ghosts are beckoned from across the street by the sounds, tremble and smell of working steam locomotives of the Strasburg Rail Road.

This excursion line, which traces its heritage back to 1845, operates two steam locomotives the year round, carrying tourists along a 5-mile stretch past the cornfields, double-floored Swiss barns and black buggies of the Amish.

It's a 45-minute journey, round trip, and you can ride in plain coaches, open-air cars with wood benches or in a Victorian dining car. Reservations are recommended with dinner.


Steamtown is about 90 miles north of Strasburg. It is home to an eclectic collection of steam locomotives assembled in the 1950s and '60s by F. Nelson Blount, a New England seafood magnate and train buff. Blount, who died in a 1967 plane crash, gathered engines where he could find them, and most of his collection came from railroads in New England.

In the 1970s, Scranton was one of several Pennsylvania cities that sought to house the state Railroad Museum. Strasburg won that competition, so in 1984, Scranton bought Blount's train collection. Under the legislative guile of Rep. Joe McDade, Scranton's long-serving Republican congressman, Steamtown was made a National Historic Site in 1986 -- despite the objections of the National Park Service.

Scranton was once home to five major railroads, which were built on the city's iron, steel and locomotive industries and, most of all, vast deposits of anthracite coal.

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