Riding the Rails at Steamtown National Historic Site

Steamtown NHS

I recently had the occasion to make a return visit to Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania.   It wasn’t a tough choice to add Steamtown as a side-trip on a recent family road-trip – as the proud parent of a three-year-old boy who absolutely loves trains (and an almost-one-year-old girl as well); Steamtown NHS was sure to be a hit.

There is a little irony to that, of course, as Steamtown NHS isn’t always looked upon fondly by fans of the U.S. National Parks.   In my recent post on the Pullman District, I alluded to the fact that sometimes the normal study process for a new national park is cut short in the rush to create a designation.  Steamtown NHS is a particular case where that process was almost completely side-stepped.  In the mid-1980’s, with the Steamtown tourist attraction in Scranton suffering from financial trouble, the local Congressional delegation pushed through a national park designation for the site to have the National Park Service take over the site and hopefully raise it to prominence.

On the other hand, it strikes me that there is no question that the story of steam railroading in the United States is a story that is well worth telling as part of the National Park System.  After all, there are at least a half-dozen national park sites devoted to telling the story of coastal fortifications and defenses in the U.S. (that’s a story for a future blog post) – so surely one would imagine that the economic engine of steam railroading would be a worthwhile story for inclusion in the National Park System.  The flip side to that, of course, is whether there is any one place that is more suitable for telling that story than any other – and in particular, whether Steamtown, in Scranton, is that place.

The primary claim to fame of Steamtown NHS is that it has preserved an old-fashioned railroad roundhouse, including the railroad turntable in the center.  According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 30 roundhouses left in the United States – which makes the turntable and roundhouse at Steamtown rare enough, if not exactly unique.  It possible that the ones here at Steamtown are in better condition than the others, or are otherwise somehow more significant than the others – but if so, that isn’t yet clear to me.

During the age of steam railroading, roundhouses were exactly as the name implies – round.   The buildings would almost completely surround the central turntable, and the turntable would allow the rail cars to be distributed into any of the bays in the roundhouse.    Today, Steamtown NHS preserves only a small portion of the original full-circle roundhouse, along with a slight larger section of the roundhouse, which has been rebuilt.  Together, the original and reconstructed roundhouses now contain the Park’s collection of historic locomotives.   This collection was largely inherited from the original owners, although the National Park Service has made various trades, sales, and purchases over the years to increase the historical quality of the collection.

This photo from 2006 shows the turntable and the historic section of the roundhouse at Steamtown NHS.   During the author's visit in 2014, the turntable was under repairs.
This photo from 2006 shows the turntable and the roundhouse at Steamtown NHS. During the author’s visit in 2014, the turntable was under repairs.

As steam locomotives were replaced by diesel locomotives in the 20th Century, roundhouses were eventually rendered obsolete.    This was due to the fact that diesel locomotives had much different maintenance requirements than their steam locomotive predecessors.   Intuitively, this makes sense, as a steam locomotive required maintaining a fire within it – and that surely imposed a lot of wear and tear on the equipment in a way in which a modern diesel engine did not.   Thus, as diesel replaced steam, roundhouses were generally replaced with more modern maintenance facilities.

At Steamtown NHS, the turntable is once-again surrounded by a full circle of buildings, as the National Park Service has constructed museum buildings where the rest of the roundhouse once would have stood.   When standing in the area of the central turntable, this at least gives some of the historical feel of what standing inside the original full circle roundhouse might have felt like.

When visiting Steamtown NHS, there is a ticket booth directly between the parking lot and the roundhouse/turntable where you pay your admission.   Head into the visitor center on the left for orientation exhibits on the park.  Heading in a clockwise direction through the complex will take you first to the Technology Museum, which provides a great overview of the evolution of railroad technology over the years.

Continuing in a clockwise direction will take you through both the restored and historic roundhouses, and the park’s collection of historic locomotives.   On our visit, we found this to be the quickest part of the park to go through.   The historic locomotives were nice and all – but, if you aren’t really in to the ins-and-outs of historic trains, we found these exhibits overall less meaningfull than the others in the park.

At the end of the locomotive exhibit you reach the History Museum.  The history here is largely told through the lens of the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, which originally constructed and operated the roundhouse where this national park now sits.   It doesn’t appear that the D, L, & W was a railroad that was necessarily particularly more notable than several others that operated in this area – but it does appear to at least be representative.    The History Museum tells the story of turn-of-century railroading through the people who would have used and worked on the railroad, and is an easy set of exhibits to get “lost in” if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The last part of the roundhouse is the theatre – however, since we were making this visit with young children, we ultimately decided to skip the movie.

A view out the window on the train excursion tour.
A view out the window on the Scranton Limited train excursion tour.

 

A trip to a place like Steamtown NHS, of course, would not be complete without a train ride.   The Scranton Limited is the most-frequently-offered excursion, and provides a short 30-minute round-trip through the rail yards, past some of the historic buildings in downtown Scranton, and back.  Despite the name of the park, the Scranton Limited tour is conducted using a historic diesel locomotive.    Still, if you are travelling with little ones, the trip is sure to meet with approval.

A satisfied customer dreaming of a train ride!
A satisfied customer dreaming of a train ride!

 

Throughout the year, other train excursions are offerred, such as to regional festivals, or to the nearby town of Moscow, PA.   Also offered with some regularity is a program offering a chance to operate a railroad hand-cart – which definitely seems like it would be a fun option for a return visit when our kids are older.

For fans of the Passport to Your National Parks program, this national park has a single major cancellation to collect:

    • Scranton, PA

The cancellation is available in three locations in the park, at the ticket booth by the entrance, and the Ranger desk in the visitor center, and at the sales counter in the Park Bookstore.

Overall, the turntable, roundhouse, historic locomotives, and train excursion tours of Steamtown NHS may not quite rise to the level of being “one of the 400 most-important places in the United States.”   On the other hand, you couldn’t tell the story of the United States without including the rise of railroading technology; so it seems to me that if there wasn’t a Steamtown National Historic Site already as a national park, then we would there to be some national park like it.   And of course, if you happen to love trains, or have little ones who love trains, then Steamtown NHS is a can’t miss destination.

I captured the reflection of my three-year-old Jr. Parkasaurus in the window gazing out on one one of the park's historic locomotives.
I captured the reflection of my three-year-old Jr. Parkasaurus in the window gazing out on one one of the park’s historic locomotives.
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