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
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!