Thursday, June 05, 2008

There’s Something About a Train… “All Aboard In Steamtown!”

I’ll never forget the first time a set a penny on the track and waited for the train to pass. I crouched on the edge of the woods a safe distance back to wait. The light on the engine grew bigger and brighter as the train approached. The ground vibrated at my feet. The powerful engine roared past pulling a line of rocking box cars. I covered my ears but kept my eyes wide open. The rail cars blurred in the forward rush. The gust of air felt like a vacuum sucking against my skin. Leaves and litter along the track swirled. Then, everything got quiet as the caboose grew smaller and smaller until it was finally out of sight. I dashed to the track. On its shiny, hot surface lay my transformed penny. Its perfect circular shape had spread to a larger less-than-perfect circle. I could barely see traces of Lincoln’s face on this new micro thin coin. I kept that penny for a long time like a trophy with bragging rights to show my friends who never ventured to lay a penny on a track.

Today, you could wait a long time along a railroad track expecting a train. Many tracks are abandoned. Some have been converted to bicycle paths in a Rails to Trails program. Still there is just something about a train that attracts me. I think it started a long time ago. At the early age of four, Santa brought me a Lionel electric train with an orange engine that runs nearly fifty years later. When I was six, my Grandmother gave my three younger cousins and me the experience of a train ride from Johnstown into Pittsburgh. We each received toy banks in the shape of a train engine from the conductor, had breakfast in at one of Pittsburgh’s Grant Street restaurants, and returned to Johnstown all in one day. My high school yearbook staff posed on the roof of the abandoned Greensburg Train Station for a photo you can find in The Spartonian 1972. And, before giving up my home in Whitehouse, Texas to live and travel in my Prevost motorhome, I listened for the industrial train to make its daily run along the tracks next Farmer Lilly’s pasture on Old Tyler Road. If I dashed onto my front porch, sometimes the engineer would give me a friendly toot and wave back to me. With this affection for trains, it’s no surprise that I routed our 10,000 Mile Grand Tour through Scranton, Pennsylvania, the home of Steamtown.

Steamtown National Historic Site occupies nearly 40 acres of the Scranton railroad yard of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. The large collection of standard-gauge steam locomotives, freight cars and passenger cars originally belonged to F. Nelson Blount. This New England seafood processor and train aficionado collected the artifacts in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1984, some 17 years after Blount’s death, the Steamtown Foundation for the Preservation of Steam and Railroad Americana, Inc., brought the collection from Vermont to Scranton. On October 30, 1986, Steamtown became part of the National Park Service.

At Steamtown, I felt like a kid in a playground, I couldn’t resist climbing aboard the first engine near the Steamtown ticket booth. When I’d been standing outside Engine 790, I looked dwarfed beside it. Inside, the space for the engineer and fireman seemed barely as big as my RV kitchen. I sat on the wooden bench reserved for the engineer and wondered how he ever managed the throttle and brakes while still keeping his eyes focused outside the little window to see the track ahead. He had to peer along the limited sight-line of the track and the long nose of the engine. This was not a job for the near-sighted. His companion, the fireman seemed to barely have room to turn and shovel the coal from its bin into the engine where it burned and created the steam for the engine’s motion. My great-grandfather Thomas Sanford worked as a fireman on a train engine like this one long before my birth. During my visit at Steamtown, I learned that his fireman’s skill was critical to running the train. The fireman gauged just how much coal to add and burn to keep the steam at a proper level. Too little steam meant the train would not pull the load. Too much steam pressure could explode the engine with catastrophic loss of life, equipment, track, and freight. The job was much more complicated and important than just shoveling coal into the engine. I also learned that firemen were among the first railroad workers to be released when steam trains became obsolete. The diesel-electric engine replaced steam locomotion.

Steamtown is all about that time before the diesel engines and other modes of transportation undermined train service. The story of the glory days of the steam trains was entertainingly presented through a movie. It featured a boy whose affection for the trains developed to an adult career on the rails. In the Visitors’ Center, a timeline with photos traced key moments in the history of railroading from the 19th to mid-20th century. Another exhibit in the History Museum used life-size mannequins such as conductors, investors, and even hobos to depict the role each played in the development of the railroad. In the authentic Railway Post Office car, we saw slots for mail to be sorted and learned about how postal workers snagged mail delivery bags from suspended rods as the train rolled along the tracks. The Business Car looked like a one-time elegant place to conduct a meeting while traveling to a destination.

These cars in the Museum Building and others positioned around the Roundhouse were beautifully reconditioned and preserved. By contrast, some of the cars in the rail yard and on the tracks looked to be in need of some TLC. I asked Mark A. Brennan of Steamtown’s Chief of Interpretation, Visitor Services & Public Affairs, about the preservation efforts. He told me Steamtown keeps a priority list based on the assessed the condition of the cars and projected cost of repairs. He added that Steamtown has only 10 skilled people in the locomotive shop keep the trains like Engine 2317 running in accordance with the regulations and inspections of the Federal Railroad Administration. He said volunteers often help with the restoration process. He wished aloud for a bigger shop staff, recruitment of additional knowledgeable volunteers and to “hold the trains for future generations.”

Mark had been a train engineer for 20 years trains until the company he worked for went
bankrupt in 1988. Since then, he’s been on staff at Steamtown. He said, “There is one reason two-times a day that I love my job.” Then he pointed to the Roundhouse and its Turntable visible from his second floor office in the Visitors’ Center. The Roundhouse is a building where the train engines are stored. At the opening and closing of each day, the 90-foot diameter turntable outside the Roundhouse lines up tracks and rotates the engine moving it to shelter or onto the tracks for a daily train rides. Ed and I watched this show earlier when the engineer retired the locomotive for the day. We were captivated. No wonder Mark never grew tired of seeing this display.

There was another view that I liked as well. Perhaps if Mark’s office would have been elevated over the tracks, his opinion would have been swayed. There’s an elevated boardwalk above Steamtown’s rail yard. I enjoyed the visual sanitation of watching Engine 2317 grow bigger and bigger as it approached the tracks that ran under the boardwalk, then grow smaller and smaller as it faded in the distance. Signs above the track warn pedestrians to stand clear of the markings so as not the get hit with the cloud of steam and cinders that erupt from the top of the engine. I stood just outside the boundaries and still felt the sting of cinders and the vibration of the engine roaring past with power and intensity. Ed and I had taken the nostalgic 10:30 AM ride in the passenger car pulled by Engine 2317 that we watched and photographed from overhead. Perched here, the passing train sparked my memories and again awakened the thrill of the trains.

Our visit to Steamtown will always be treasured as a memorable experience. It gave Ed and me a new understanding of the power of steam trains, their history, and the intricacies of their preservation. After our visit we each read the book Steamtown, the Nation’s Living Railroad Museum, which added to our appreciation of this historic place as did the comments and personal reflections of Mark Brennan. Steamtown exceeded all of our expectations.

“Steamtown is a perfect day-trip,” Mark told us. “If we get you here, we capture you.”

Consider us captured as “rail fans”.

June 1, 2008

Steamtown National Historic Site is located off Exit 185 on I-81 and can easily be found by following the

National Park Service Signs through downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania.

There is limited RV parking at the site and no pull-through spaces for large RVs with tow cars.

We found parking at Sam’s Club off Exit 190 on I-81 and used our tow car for the trip.

Also, pack a snack. There are no food or drink facilities at the Park. Interpretive programs and rail excursions are available throughout the year at Steamtown’s living railroad museum.

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