Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Visit to Steamtown National Historic Site: August 30, 2015

After enjoying our time at Corvettes at Carlisle, it was time to return home but on the way we decided to stop at the Steamtown NHS, a National Park in Scranton, Pennsylvania, devoted to the history of the steam train and rail transportation in America.  It is located on a 62 acre site that was once occupied by the yards of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W), which was established in 1853 and ran until 1960, when, after two decades of decline, it merged with the Erie Railroad.  The DL&W route ran from Buffalo, New York to Hoboken, New Jersey (640 kms) and was primarily a transporter of anthracite coal.

A curious series of events culminated in the opening of the Steamtown National Historic Site in 1995. A major part of the collection had been established by a wealthy seafood entrepreneur, Nelson Blount, who had amassed no fewer than 25 steam locomotives by 1964, when the bulk of the collection passed to a foundation, Steamtown USA.  Blount died in an airplane crash in 1967 and without his finances, the collection, which was used for scenic excursions in New Hampshire, sought state support and was moved to Vermont.  This did not work out well as the organization ran afoul of pollution regulations and federal safety standards.

Overview of the Steamtown National Historic Site
Recognizing the historical importance of the collection and Scranton's own links to railway history, the city agreed to subsidize the move of Steamtown USA's now-40 locomotives and 60 cars, as well as spending $13 million with a private developer to renovate the old neoclassical DL&W station, built in 1908, into a hotel (first managed by Hilton by now by Radisson).  The hoped-for 200,000-400,000 visitors to Scranton annually did not come to pass.  Steamtown USA had only 60,000 in its first year of operation in 1987 and was essentially bankrupt two years later.

At this point some political muscle was applied by the local Congressman, who arranged for an investigation into taking over Steamtown USA as a national park.  The National Park Service acquired Steamtown for $66 million in 1995 after considerable controversy.  It was seen as a pork-barrel project and lacking in historical importance.  The counter-argument, which I think bears some weight, is that the United States is sorely lacking in commemoration of its industrial heritage and Scranton offered a remarkable collection of  13 important buildings--all of them on the National Register of Historic Buildings-- on a single 40 acre site that was the DL&W yards.  In any event, the museum has not been a big attraction under government auspices either and there was even consideration in 2008 to privatizing it.

As we are enthusiasts for industrial history, we enjoyed the museum very much.  The outdoor displays are impressive.  Clearly the pick of the pack is the magnificent Union Pacific 4012 "Big Boy," one of the biggest locomotives ever built.  This model locomotive was only used in the West as it could not deal with the tight radius curves common in the Eastern US.  One of 25 built, the Steamtown locomotive was constructed in 1941 and hauled freight between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah until retired in 1962.  Too big to fit in the DL&W roundhouse, the "Big Boy" nickname is quite appropriate given the locomotive's weight of 570,000 kg (1,250,000 lbs).  Eight of these monsters have survived.

Another handsome locomotive was the curious Reading 2124, which was originally built in one configuration in 1924 and then rebuilt in a completely different form, using the old boiler and firebox, in 1946 and was used to haul freight, primarily coal, until 1956.  It was subsequently used to pull excursion trains but has now been restored cosmetically and is the first thing visitors see when they pull into the parking lot.

In addition to the outside displays, there is much to see in the surviving parts of the DL&W's 1902 roundhouse, with displays about train travel, mail shipments, and railway architecture, such as roundhouses, bridges, tunnels and viaducts, including a big model of one built for the DL&W that was that largest concrete structure in the world in its time.

There were many interesting things to look at, including this fine caboose that belonged to the Rutland Railroad.  It was built in 1920 and used on the route between Ogdensburg, NY and Rutland, Vermont for many years and restored in 1995.

Not part of the Steamtown NHS, there is the Electric City Trolley Museum close by to give an idea of alternative transport.  This lovely 1932 trolley boasted a streamline shape meant to provide competition to automobiles and it operated for 50 years and has been restored to its original colours.

At the present, Steamtown NHS has no operating main-line locomotives but is conducting extensive maintenance.  One of the big issues with restoration is the prevalence of asbestos in the equipment.  Walking through the maintenance part of the museum, we see here CN 3254, built in 1917 in Kington, Ontario, to haul freight and retired in 1958; next is a small saddletank switching locomotive built in Wilkes-Barre, PA, in 1911 and used for switching work in the chemical and paper industries; and then the No. 3 locomotive built in 1927 in Schenectady, NY,  and used by the Lavino Steel Co. until 1949.

There are several Canadian National Railway locomotives in the collection, along with this 1923 Canadian Pacific 2317.  It was used for fast passenger trains and spend part of its working life based in Winnipeg.  It was a good design and the CPR bought 173 of them from the Montreal Locomotive Works but only two survive today.  One of the criticisms levelled against Steamtown NHS was the inclusion of this "foreign" stock and that the collection is heavily biased towards the end of the steam epoch, with many of the locomotives dating from the 1930s and 1940s.

Travelling in a private railcar was the height of luxury.  Here is the Erie Railroad Business Car No. 3, built in 1929 and stationed in Jersey City, NJ, it was for the use of the Assistant Vice President and General Manager of the Erie's Eastern District.  The car contains two staterooms, two bedrooms, crew quarters, galley, dinner room and here is the observation end.

It is possible to actually go for a short train ride when you visit the museum but, sadly, this is operated using a diesel locomotive and considering there is basically nothing to look at on the brief trip it might be something for someone who has never actually ridden on a train before, an occurrence that is probably not unusual in the United States today.

Here is another saddleback switching engine by the Vulcan Iron Works.  Built in 1919, it was used in a quarry in Connecticut until 1959.

On this pleasant Sunday, which had seen a bit of rain, we had expected considerably more visitors to this interesting and significant site.  There are some regular events held here, including the flagship one "Railfest" but the museum attracts only about 85,000 visitors annually.  This is a shame as it offers real insight into America's past--even with a few Canadian locomotives!

Back into the Corvette and onto I-81 and bound northwards, we reached home in the early evening. Scranton is just over 520 kms from our place in Ottawa, a relaxed five hours on the road.  There is  not so much to see in the post-coal environs of Central Pennsylvania but Steamtown NHS would be worth going to see anywhere.

For more information, you can check out their website .

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