by Jim Herron
There is a romantic image that steam railroading evokes. It took a great deal of skill and knowledge to operate the big, beautiful steam engines. A visit to Steamtown USA lets you experience a part of American railroading-the era of steam locomotives-that hasn’t existed for nearly half a century. Steamtown National Historic site was established in October 1986 to further understanding and appreciation for the role that steam railroading played in development of the United States.
Steamtown occupies about 40 acres of the old Scranton, Pennsylvania Lackawanna railroad yard. It includes a museum, roundhouse, a huge 90 foot diameter turntable from 1902, a station and a technology museum. It opened in 1995 and is a runaway hit.
There are passenger excursions from Steamtown three times a day in a black 2-8-4 Canadian National Mikado steam engine with Lackawanna passenger cars from the early 1920’s. It’s about a one hour ride and it is worth it just to hear the steam whistle, bells, chugging of the engine and the smoke exit from its tall stack.
When I arrived, I thought I’d breeze through the place in less than an hour, take some pictures and be on my way. Instead, I wound up staying for more than three hours and could have easily spent a full day. The best part of Steamtown is walking around the yard and museum, seeing the collection of locomotives they have so far acquired. The prize is the AlCo Union Pacific 4012 “Big Boy” – the largest locomotive ever built. It still runs occasionally! There are Reading and Nickel Plate locomotives, switchers, a yard switcher, C.P. , Jersey Central and Lackawanna steam engines spread out in the 48 bays of the roundhouse. They also have part of the roundhouse devoted to repairs, rebuilding and daily maintenance.
The technology section of the roundhouse has to be another highlight of the trip. Videos and graphic drawings detail the systems and operation of a steam locomotive with a real locomotive cut-away right next to the exhibit. There are also videos of maintenance, stations, explanation of signals, whistles, bells and track laying and ballasting. Kids can spend hours trying all the bells and whistle quizzes, and explore a real caboose or watch the steam engines pulling in and out of the roundhouse, which at one time had 48 operating stalls for locomotives, via a turntable. There is also a movie theater located in another part of the roundhouse along with a history museum that highlights the people and the history of steam railroading in the U. S.
The oil storage shed has been turned into a bookstore with the original barrels and racks still attached to the ceilings.
Down the block from the roundhouse is the original Lackawanna railroad station that now has been turned into a Ramada Inn hotel. They have done a first class job of it. You feel like you just stepped back to the turn of the century, just looking around the old converted station that is now the hotel lobby.
All of these buildings had been idly sitting for more than 25 years. A local group got together, and with help with the government, established Steamtown in 1986 to show this part of American history. It took nine years to restore, opening in the Spring of 1995. According to attendance figures, it has been a huge success. It is opened to the public year around, except holidays. According to the National Park Service (which operates Steamtown), they are still in the process of acquiring equipment in the next few years.
I would have to rate Steamtown a don’t miss for the railroad enthusiast. It should be called the Smithsonian of Steam Trains!