Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tell Me, What Did They Find in the Vault of the Historic Lackawanna Station?

“Is there any merit to visiting the DL & W Station?” I asked our Steamtown guide as we rolled past. “Oh, yes!” he enthusiastically replied without giving me a clue as to why the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad Station was so special. Greg Williams further piqued my interest in this historic place when he said, “Come by this evening. I’ll tell you what the locksmith found when he opened the old railroad vault?” I agreed to meet him at 6:30 PM.

I tried to use my imagination when I entered this grand historic train station. If I had been a traveler 100-years ago, I would have gone to one of the windows to purchase my ticket and checked the lobby clock for the correct time. I would have sat on the waiting room bench dreaming about the places I could go. Cayuga Lake, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York Harbor, Clarks Summit, the Delaware Water Gap, Swartswood Lake, and Niagara Falls are just some of the places illustrated by the 36 faience tiles surrounding the waiting room. Each would have stirred my wanderlust. I could have gone to any of these places from this hub of train travel until January 5, 1970. On that day, the trains stopped running here. The DL &W Station closed its doors to all but the trespassers and “bums” who slipped in uninvited. The Sienna marble walls and terrazzo tile floor in the station became crusted with the dust and dirt that accumulated from years of vacancy. And, the railroad vault remained locked.

The station never reopened again until New Year’s Eve, 1983. It was restored through the efforts of the Erie-Lackawanna Restoration Associates and converted to a hotel, The Hilton at Lackawanna. And then, years later in 2005, the hotel changed hands to join the Radisson worldwide network of hotels.

Today, the DL &W Station approaches its centennial celebration. Travelers now come to the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel Scranton for a number of reasons. Some stay a night or take up extended lodging perhaps in the Phoebe Snow suite or any one of the 145 guest rooms. Many enjoy a meal in Carmen’s Restaurant, a glass of wine in the Lobby Lounge wine bar, or lighter meal with a cold beer in the casual atmosphere of Trax Restaurant. For others coming to one of the many banquet rooms, it’s a momentous occasion like a wedding, conference, business meeting or afternoon tea party. I came because of the Steamtown ranger’s endorsement and a Monday meeting of the Rotary Club of Scranton.

I asked many questions about the history of the DL & W Station over a lunchtime Rotary meal. Then I was promised that my inquisitiveness would be satisfied if I returned later in the day. Greg Williams would be my guide through this luxury hotel uniquely linked to railroad history and listed on The National Register of Historic Places. Greg was my source for the mystery of what the locksmith found in the vault.

Greg’s business card lists his title as Corporate Sales Manager for the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel. I’d take the liberty to add Historian to his title. When he joined the Radisson staff over a year ago, Greg dug into the history of the DL & W Station. He keeps his research in a desk file. He let me read copies of pages from local history books on Scranton mentioning the train station. He shared photos of the 1982 interior clean-up and exterior shots proclaiming the comeback of this historic railroad building. Without Greg as my guide, the intricacies of this building would have been missed or false assumptions made.

We started our tour in the hotel lobby, the area formerly served as the spacious waiting room for train passengers. Scenic Greuby tile murals encircle the four walls each illustrates places from Hoboken to Niagara Falls where the early passenger trains departing from Scranton, Pennsylvania once stopped. The original clock still keeps time and hangs prominently along the second floor railing. And, the stained glass ceiling arched overhead.

The walls seemed less obvious than these grand features until Greg called my attention to the marble. Three distinct colors of marble blend to create the walls and round pillars. Greg ran his hand over the smooth finish, “This marble is butterscotch. Can you see this section is more of a mauve color? The base is jade green.” The marble came from Italy. “Miners cut and numbered each piece of marble extracted so they could be shipped and assembled here to create a mirrored effect,” Greg explained. Then, he traced a finger on the lines of the marble all intersecting, perfectly amazing. Still drawn to the marble, Greg asked, “Do you see the angels in this wall?” Yes, I could see the angels – white wings, flowing gowns, and faces – as if they’d been petrified in the marble by an artist’s talented hand.

In the Station Ballroom off the lobby, a green tile wall rose from the floor to the ceiling. This Greg told me this is one of the original exterior walls of the train station which faced the train tracks. Ticket windows cut into the tile wall allowed folks traveling by train to buy tickets without entering the main station. Today, the windows are closed and look like wooden shutters placed evenly along the green tile wall. Above us metal beams extended perpendicular from the green wall. Historically, the beams supported a roof over the train tracks to protect passengers from rain and snow. The area was enclosed in the 1983 renovation to create this functional room.

In Trax Restaurant, I sat on one of the original benches preserved from the train station waiting room. Here, Greg showed me another intricacy of this special place. “There are no nails in the benches,” he casually remarked. Each slat of wood had been cut to interlock and connect with an odd shaped plug. “Do people realize what they are sitting on when they come here for a glass of wine or a cold beer?” I asked already knowing Greg would shake his head “No.”

Greg took me outside to a covered parking platform. “Sleeper cars parked here along two rails.” He continued, “Skilled engineers could hook up a sleeper car without waking the passengers.” In the first renovation, a tennis court and pool fit under the covered area. Now, the roof provides cover for special events like the Annual Scranton Jazz Festival. Greg told me the roof originally had an opening overhead where steam, dirt and cinders from the old steam trains could escape. I could see where the opening had been covered. From here, Greg pointed to the remains of an old munitions plant. Later, he would show me the brick archways in the hotel basement that connected tunnels from the plant to the train station. The tunnels are sealed off now; but during World War II, weapons mover undetected through the passageways. He told me about other underground tunnels beneath the city. Scranton’s trolley company created these tunnels which served as an efficient beltway for transportation of the trolley drivers to their routes.

According to Greg, Scranton was a key logistical city for coal, freight, and train passenger travel. Over 100-years ago, Scranton was “the 20th largest city in the country.” He reminded me that Scranton became the nation’s first city to successfully electrify the trolley system. And, he surprised me with the notion that in the days of Vaudeville, “Scranton was the proving ground for many acts, the last stop before reaching the big time in New York City.”

More surprising than these tidbits came the answer to the mysterious question: What Did They Find in the Vault of the Historic DL & W Station? Greg told me that all the while when the station remained vacant, the vault had not been tampered with and remained sealed. No one knew the combination. There were no records found to help unlock the vault. The Moser Safe Company had to be hired to crack the safe without damage to the artifact. When it was finally opened, one thing stood inside the vault - a lone lamp, an original from the train station waiting room. No money, no jewels, no historically relevant records, just an original train station lamp was found. It came to be valued as a remnant of the time past. Its design was copied and these replicas now decorate the Radisson lobby. The vault door is anchored open to show the intricate locking mechanism and jewelers’ rotations etched artfully on the inner metal door. My curiosity was at last satisfied thanks to Greg - sales manager, tour guide, and historian.

June 2, 2008

A list describing the faience tiles designed by Clark G. Voorhees and number key, as well as, a publication called “Historical Perspective” are available at the Radisson Front Desk.

The Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel Scranton is located at 700 Lackawanna Avenue in the center of downtown Scranton, PA and within walking distance of Steamtown.

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