Steamtown National Historic Site

1. Birth of the Railroads:

Distances between the still-sparsely populated areas of the United States in the early-1800s were significant and the expanses between them untamed, hostile, and obstacle-ridden. Yet the need to supply them became greater. Railroads ultimately provided the necessary arteries to them once track had triumphed technology and locomotives of sufficient capability had been designed to ply them.

Because of these conditions, railroad investment in both Great Britain and the US accelerated, yielding to the first such rail concerns as, respectively, the Liverpool and Manchester, which commenced operations in 1830, and the South Carolina Railroad, progressively demonstrating that the fledgling industry would become inextricably tied to the production of goods and proving the prediction that it would become “the biggest business of 19th-century America.”

Although such companies were still small, privately-owned affairs and covered disconnected portions of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia, a few adventurous ones succeeded in tackling westward routes through the Appalachian Mountains. The ever-increasing demand for facilities to transport their wares and products spurred the laying of more than 9,000 miles of track, albeit still in New England and the Middle Atlantic states at this point.

A decade later, the once barren, horse- and stagecoach-only accessible expanses had been replaced by an iron network of tracks in every state east of the Mississippi River, which equated to more than triple the length of the 1830 total.

While thwarting further expansion, the Civil War can nevertheless be credited with the first US conflict in which the method played an important role in transporting troops and supplies. And, when it was resolved, the track mileage only reflected the increasing speed of the steam locomotives that plied it: 94,000 in 1880, 193,000 in 1900, and 254,000 in 1918, creating coast-to-coast country cohesion.

Self-feeding, the railroad industry both created and supplied its growth, providing factories with materials, such as cotton, coal, iron, and iron ore, and departing with the finished products they facilitated, like cloth, machines, and steel, and transforming the once agricultural nation into an industrial one in the process. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that the railroads served as the means to populate, carrying emigrants to Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley.

Virtually replacing stagecoach lines and riverboats, railroads offered speed and inter-city conveyance, reducing the six-day journey between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1812 by the former means to five hours by rail in 1920.

While the triumph of technology superseded horse-drawn transportation, it began to catch railroads with its own victimizing hands. The construction of post-World War II roads, along with the increasing proliferation of automobiles and trucks, began to prove their superiority, speed, and convenience, enticing freight and passengers from the rails to the roads in the early-1950s until reduced demand necessitated a reduction in service and sometimes the abandonment of no-longer needed lines. Contributing to this decline was the fact that the once-mighty, but polluting steam engines had begun to be replaced by quieter, cleaner diesel ones.

Reduced, today, to tourist railroads, this coal-burning technology, which had been instrumental in the country’s expansion, can be interpreted at Scranton’s Steamtown National Historic Site.

2. The Scranton Rail Yard:

Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys were both suppliers and recipients of their win-win growth. Attracting some 30 ethnic groups, who sought iron and steel factory, silk mill, coal mine, and railroad employment, they provided the anthracite coal which fueled steam locomotives, sparked the growth, and transported the workers, their families, and the materials to and from the cities to which they gave rise.

Of the five major railroads that served Scranton and were responsible for the creation of the industrial complexes-the Central of New Jersey, the Delaware and Hudson, the Erie, the New York, Ontario, and Western, and the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley-the latter was established in 1853 by George and Seldon Scranton (after whom the city was eventually named), who sought an economical means of transporting their iron products, particularly the t-rails used in track construction.

Amalgamating the three existing companies of the Cayuga and Susquehanna, the Lackawanna and Western, and the Delaware and Cobb’s Gap, they created the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, which covered some 1,000 miles of main and branch line track between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Albany, New York. But, perhaps more importantly for today’s visitor, they laid the foundation for the extensive Steamtown National Historic Site, many of whose structures date from this period.

Its ultimate decline, along with Scranton’s-whose economic activity was inextricably tied to it-began when the need for anthracite coal diminished in the 1920s, progressively replaced with gas and oil as home and industrial fuel sources, while the diesel engines soon substituted for those of steam, eliminating the need for the facilities that supported it, particularly the repair shop that closed in 1949.

The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western’s subsequent merger with long-time rival Erie-Lackawanna gradually dimmed the lights on the Scranton rail yard in the 1960s and the plug was permanently pulled 20 years later, when it was absorbed into the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail).

3. Steamtown National Historic Site:

Located in downtown Scranton on 40 acres of the former Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western rail yard, whose current collection consists of the steam locomotives, passenger coaches, and freight cars assembled by New England seafood processor F. Nelson Blunt in the 1950s and 1960s, the circularly configured buildings, surrounding a turntable and comprising Steamtown National Historic Site, immediately transport the visitor to an earlier era.

“You are about to experience a part of American railroading that hasn’t existed for nearly half a century-the era of the steam locomotive,” according to the museum. “Steamtown National Historic Site was established on October 30, 1986 to further public understanding and appreciation of the role steam railroading played in the development of the United States. It is the only place in the National Park System where the story of steam railroading and the people who made it possible is told.”

Admission tickets and short rail rides can be purchased at the outside booth.

“Working on the railroad was rarely romantic or glamorous,” the museum further advises. “Mostly it was hard work-grimy, noisy, greasy, and occasionally dangerous. Today, mechanics still labor to repair and maintain steam locomotives and rolling stock at this site, with tools and methods virtually unchanged since the 1930s.

“The National Park Service has retained the industrial working character of this historic Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad yard to present the Steamtown visitor a realistic portrayal of steam-era railroading.”

A pass through the Visitor Center affords access to the outside turntable and the many exhibit buildings surrounding it.

At 90 feet in length, the turntable itself, representative of the type used after 1900, served as the hub of the roundhouse complex, its tracks, like spokes, radiating to each engine stall. As locomotives returned for service, they negotiated a narrow, dual-track passage, at which time a control cab positioned operator rotated the turntable bridge so that it aligned with the assigned stall.

Entering head first, the locomotive, still pulling its tender, moved into it, ensuring that its smokestack remained below the ceiling flues.

The process was reversed when it was scheduled to leave.

On display here is an Illinois Central Railroad engine, number 790. Constructed by the American Locomotive Company in 1903 and featuring a 2-8-0 wheel configuration, it hauled freight from Tennessee. It was not retired until the 1950s.

The 18-minute “Steel and Steam” film offers a good introduction to the site.

The first display building, in counterclockwise direction, is the History Museum, whose exhibits highlight the evolution of steam railroading in the United States from 1850, depicting early railroads, associated life, and their relationship to labor, business, and the government, along with a timeline that illustrates Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western milestones from the early-19th to the mid-20th centuries.

Artificial waterways, according to the exhibits, provided practical alternatives to the then high cost of turnpike construction. In 1816, DeWiit Clinton persuaded the New York State legislature to charter the Erie Canal from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie, creating an important and profitable east-to-west transportation route and spurring the development of similar eastern canal systems. It was some time before tracks replaced waterways.

Although railroads may be traced to ancient Roman road carts, design of true trains, which employed flanged, wooden rails and wheels, did not begin until the 16th and 17th centuries to carry coal from the mines in Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

Refinement of small, low pressure steam engines, used to pump water from those very mines, served as the threshold to early steam locomotive development, the first of which, taking form in 1804, plied rails in Pen-y-Darren, Whales.

The visitor can absorb the sights and sounds of passenger steam railroading in the ticket window provisioned waiting room, in which the puffs of smoke, the ring of bells, and the clack of tracks can be heard.

Passage through the platform-accessing door reveals two superbly restored, track-cradled cars. The first, number 1100, is an all-steel Louisville and Nashville Railroad Post Office coach constructed by the American Car and Foundry Company in 1914. The second, Erie business car number 3, was built circa 1929 by the Pullman Company and offered luxury to its two crew members and nine passengers with two staterooms, two bedrooms, a porter’s quarters, a kitchen, and a credenza- and table-sporting dining room.

Significant to both steam railroading and the museum’s complex is the roundhouse, which was constructed in 1902, rebuilt in 1917 after a fire claimed the original structure, and expanded two decades later.

“The roundhouse was and is the heart of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western yards,” according to the museum. “Here, mechanics perform daily maintenance on steam locomotives-routine inspections, light repairs, and boiler wastes. Hissing steam, pounding hammers, and the drone of engines provide a constant backdrop for the mechanics’ work.”

Some locomotive highlights, nestled in their respective bays, include a Canadian National Railways number 3254, a Canadian National Railways number 2317, a Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western number 565, a Nickel Plate number 759, and a Grand Trunk Western number 6039.

A separate roundhouse, from 1902, originally featured 46 stalls, but its modernization program only left the current three intact. Employing then-standard industrial practices, it offered no heat, since it was believed that mechanics, who were nevertheless warmly dressed, worked harder under such conditions.

Today, its three track-supporting locomotives and cars permit close inspections.

The first, a Spang, Chalfant, and Company 0-6-0 switcher, bearing number 9, was delivered in April of 1923. Its right-side cut-away provides an opportunity to inspect its under-the-skin boiler and inner workings.

The second, an old-style Rutland caboose, number 28, was constructed in 1920 and features an off-set cupola and four-wheeled trucks.

The third, an equally wooden Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western boxcar, number 43651, represents the tens of thousands that transported weather- and breakage-protecting products and commodities across the country.

Although roundhouses such as these were nucleuses of steam locomotive maintenance and repair, below-ground pits facilitated the under-engine inspection of them. Archaeologist-excavated brick inspection pits, from the 1865 and 1902/1937 periods, reveal their improved construction techniques in outside exhibits between the two roundhouse sections.

Steamtown National Historic Site’s Technology Museum, attached to the earlier of the two, offers displays about locomotive design, railroad architecture, track engineering, signals, communication, and safety.

The full economic potential of railroads, it explains, was quickly realized after the steam locomotive demonstrated its capability, and it experienced a significant evolution, becoming increasingly more powerful and employing stronger, smoother tracks, as they carried passengers and freight across the nation. Concurrently, the development of signal and communication systems made the industry safer and more reliable.

Progressing from small, rolling tea kettles, steam locomotives grew in size, strength, and sophistication, utilizing more steel in their construction and consuming more coal in their operation.

This advancement can be gleaned from the profiles of locomotive types, which progressed from those without trailing trucks to those with two-wheeled ones, those with four-wheeled ones, and to those articulated ones that employed pivoting front engines.

The complex’s bookstore museum shop, located outside of the circular confines, is housed in the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western’s reinforced concrete and steel oil house, hailing from 1912, which was positioned close enough to the roundhouse for convenience, yet far enough to minimize damage to personnel and rolling stock.

The dual-section interior features both the bookstore/gift shop, located in the former storage room, and the basement that contained up to 14 tanks of lubricating oil necessary for the greasing of locomotive parts, including car, engine, mineral, crude, turpentine, gasoline, signal lamp, and cylinder types. Visitors can peer into the pit from the ground level, which had served as the pump room.

Across the tracks, in the yard, is the headquarters of the roundhouse foreman. Dating from 1902, it is one of the oldest structures surviving from the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western facility.

Nothing, however, is more symbolic of steam locomotive triumph than the site’s Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” number 4012, built in November of 1941 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York. Today, it is one of only eight of the original 25 surviving and the only one east of Wisconsin.

Stretching 132.10 feet, carrying 28 tons of coal and 24,000 gallons of water, featuring a loaded tender weight of 1,189,500 pounds, and developing a 135,375-pound tractive force, it was nevertheless able to attain speeds in excess of 80 mph, having hauled long, heavy troop and freight trains over steep grades east of Salt Lake City over the Wasatch Mountains. It represents the pinnacle of steam engine technology.

Ultimate visitor immersion into the era can be achieved during a 30-minute, four-mile train ride, named the “Scranton Limited,” of the yard, pulled by Baldwin steam locomotive number 26, as evidenced by the coal-black soot emitted by its stack and sometimes enveloping the windows of the high-ceiling passenger coaches that come complete with walkover seats and baggage racks. Threading its way between rolling stock and over switches and brides, it completes any Steamtown National Historic Site visit.