Steamtown National Historic Site

Location: Scranton, Pennsylvania

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Located on 62 acres in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Steamtown National Historic Site is built around the turntable and roundhouse of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad (DL&W) to celebrate the age of the railroads.  As were most of the railroads in the northeast and as the name implies, the DL&W Railroad was a series of acquisitions, mergers, and leases to form a trunk line from New York City to Buffalo with branches throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and extending to the Great Lakes.  This Railroad ran passenger and freight services from its incorporation in 1849 until its merger with Erie Railroad to from the Erie-Lackawanna in 1960 and absorption into Conrail in 1976.  Up until the 1880s, the main source of revenue was the transportation of coal carrying up to 14% of Pennsylvania’s anthracite production, much of it from railroad owned mines.  During the 1880-1900 period, there was a lot of diversification into general merchandise (dairy products, cattle, lumber, cement, steel, grain) and passenger traffic, especially into the Poconos which was a popular tourist attraction for residents of New York City and New Jersey.  From 1900-1940 the Railroad continued to expand its passenger traffic and embarked into a major building effort.  New railroad lines were built to increase access and old railroad lines were rebuilt to improve speed and efficiency.  It was during this period that railroad lines were straightened by massive cut and fill operations and massive bridges over rivers using poured reinforced concrete creating beautiful structures still in use today.  New and expansive railroad stations were built incorporating architectural features that would make them a showplace and attract passengers.  Travel by steam locomotives was the preferred method of travel in the early 20th century and DL&W attracted passengers with their Phoebe Snow campaign that stressed the relatively cleanliness of using anthracite coal instead of bituminous coal claiming “hers was the gown that stayed white from morn till night upon the Road of Anthracite.”  However, the Great Depression of the 1930 was a huge blow to the railroads that were saved by increased traffic during World War II with the shipping of war material and troops.  However, following the war traveling by railroad was replaced by the automobile and the trucking industry nearly ended the railroads for good.  Thankfully, the use of diesel engines and container cars has caused a resurgence in railroad shipping and electric commuter trains between major cities has once again increased passenger traffic, especially in the northeast corridor.  Today, Steamtown National Historic Site is located in the center of the massive DL&W railroad yard in Scranton incorporating the surviving elements of the 1902 roundhouse and locomotive repair shops.  The steam locomotive collection began with the 35 steam locomotives and 25 other rolling stock collected by F. Nelson Blunt along with DL&W stock to create the largest collection of steam-era locomotives in the world.  Visitors are treated to an extensive museum about the history of railroads and DL&W in particular, explore inside a Pullman car, mail car, boxcar, caboose, and locomotives, and get close to over 25 restored locomotives on the railyard and in the roundhouse.



1) The Visitor Center is located within one section of the 1902 roundhouse which has been restored to hold the museum.  Within you can sit in a large auditorium with theater seating to view a well made film about the era of passenger traffic on the DL&W.


2) The museum took hours to explore.  On one side is the history of the railroads from the beginning as a series of unconnected rails transporting coal scattered all over Pennsylvania through the period of consolidation and diversification to the age of passenger traffic.  An extensive timeline is presented with artifacts from each period.  The viewpoint then shifts to the workers employed by the railroads from those that built the tracks to engineers running the trains.  There is a mockup of a train station with stories from passengers.  Finally you can explore a Pullman car and mail car where they sorted the mail while traveling down the track!


3) The other side of the museum is devoted to the technology of steam engines.  There are displays about how the technology of laying track and building bridges have changed, how signals are used to direct the trains, and how the railroads forced the adoption of consistent time zones so they could operate a consistent schedule.  You can also get inside a boxcar and caboose and they have cut away parts of a steam locomotive so you can see and understand how it functions.  The most interesting part was understanding the three round structures on top of the locomotive.  While the center structure is where the steam and exhaust from the fire escapes, the other two structures are actually sand reservoirs, one for going forward and one for reverse.  Especially when starting and stopping, traction on the rail is very important.  Sand would be released by the engineer directly onto the rail in front of the wheels to improve the traction when needed.


4) The highlight of the museum is the roundhouse and working turntable.  Within the roundhouse they have all types of steam engines from all over the US and Canada.  You can even see where they are actively restoring steam engines.


5) You are also allowed to walk around the rail yard where there a number of old steam engines in various stages of deterioration.  The most impressive was a steam engine that was over 100 feet in length with two sets of 6 wheels.  It looked like it was two separate steam engines and probably was.  This steam engine was used to pull trains over the mountains out west.


6) The National Park System has invested a lot of money into this Historic Site and it shows.  The grounds are beautiful and the museum is impressive in both its content and appearance.  To see an active round house and turn table made the trip worthwhile.


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