Get Steamed!

by Country Inns & Suites
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

As I drive along the western edge of the Steamtown National Historic Site parking lot, I have no doubt about the focus. On my left looms a row of massive railroad locomotives, mighty machines that relied on steam to create motion. They are an impressive reminder of a bygone age in railroad history, when steam engines ruled the rails in the United States and elsewhere.  By James D. Porterfield

It takes a big park to celebrate such a big machine. And at 40 acres, Steamtown is big. Set on a broad plain between downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Lackawanna River, this facility is located in what was once the Scranton yard of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.

Here, spread before me, are traces of the complex industrial facility that once occupied this space. A walkway off to the left, up and over the main line to a mall, replicates track that once carried rail cars up to drop their loads of coal into chutes used to fuel the locomotives. A huge roundhouse and the structures beyond it—shops and an erecting plant, factories and mills, a grand station and freight houses—all reflect Scranton’s once important place as a capital of coal, iron and railroading.

I begin my tour with a walk through the interpretive museum, where photographs and exhibits lead me through the rise, rule, and decline of steam locomotives in America: from their introduction in nearby Honesdale  in 1829 to their relegation to ordinary revenue service in the 1950s. From there, I follow an elevated walkway along a large remnant of the 1937 roundhouse where there are more locomotives below. Outside, in the center of the roundhouse, I catch a glimpse of the turntable maneuvering a locomotive from its stall to the departure track. As I look on, it’s set in motion and moves through a gap in the building into position to couple up to a passenger train ready to depart.

I feel a sense of urgency now, for this is my train. I hurry down the platform to board one of the old railroad coaches. The 26-mile round trip I am about to take, from Scranton to Moscow, Pennsylvania, is considered by many knowledgeable rail fans to be the best steam excursion in America. 

The locomotive works uphill all the way, producing powerful chuffs and barking exhaust. At Moscow, we passengers detrain and watch the steam locomotive “run around” the train into position for the trip back to the Scranton yard.

As I prepare to leave Steamtown, I stop and close my eyes for a moment. I concentrate on the sounds of railroading—the bell warning that a locomotive is about to move, the hiss of steam being put to work, the melody of a three-chime whistle and the chuff of a locomotive just getting under way. I imagine this plain along the Lackawanna River 75 years ago, and I see in my mind’s eye the living, breathing steam locomotives, and the ribbons of steel that carried them to bind America together.

James D. Porterfield has logged more than 150,000 rail miles and lectured frequently on railroad history aboard the American Orient Express, North America’s only private luxury train.