Rick Hiduk Winter 2015
For more than a century, regardless of the season, steam trains and, eventually, diesel-powered locomotives have pulled people and supplies across the nation. Visitors to Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., can likewise experience year round the charm and awe inspired by America’s railroading history. A stop at Steamtown is both an educational and a romantic experience, by nearly anyone’s standards.
During each day of operation, the bygone steam engine era comes back to life with the sights, sounds, and smells of operating locomotives as well as the stories of the people who made their livings working on the railroad. Special events throughout the year draw history buffs and costumed re-ennactors to the site who only add to the authenticity of the experience.
“The history is phenomenal,” says park ranger Dan Kahl. “I learn something new every day.”
A large collection of standard-gauge steam locomotives serves as the anchor of the 40-acre national park. The restored Roundhouse and Museum Complex are also situated at the center of the site. The engines and the many types of railroad cars were the pride and joy of New England seafood mogul F. Nelson Blount, who founded the Steamtown Foundation. After Blount’s death, the collection was moved to Scranton, where the historic site was created. The city of Scranton provided initial funding as part of an urban redevelopment program.
The city of Scranton embraced the project from its conception in 1984 and committed to transforming formerly depressed nearby Lackawanna Avenue into a glittering mecca for shoppers. The Mall at Steamtown fills one side of the street with an all-weather bridge over the thoroughfare to large department stores on the other, older side of the street. Specialty shops fill renovated facades that hearken back to the years when the railroad reined supreme.
Shopping and dining opportunities abound from Lackawanna Avenue into center city and Courthouse Square, the iconic structures of which were immortalized in the hit television program “The Office.” Cultural centers and small theaters routinely offer as great a variety of live entertainment.
Standing like a sentry at the upper end of Lackawanna Avenue to Steamtown Park is the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel, a lovingly restored remnant of the original Lackawanna Railroad, famously referenced in song and film in the mid-1900s. Featuring high-end dining and upscale lodging, the Radisson is but one example of lodging options close to the state park.
The Museum Complex at Steamtown is comprised of the Technology Museum, the History Museum, a theater that plays a brief introductory video, and the Visitors Center. The Complex is open to visitors every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Winter hours for the museums are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from early January to early April. The park may be closed due to severe weather, including heavy snow, so those planning a visit should be mindful of the weather and call 570-340-5200 if there is any question regarding site access. For the remainder of the year, the Complex is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Kahl routinely gives tours of the facilities and enjoys interacting with a diverse audience. Formerly a school teacher, Kahl especially likes to help young children, whose concept of trains is often molded by television, relate to the engines and other pieces of equipment. He tries to give local residents a memorable experience, and he even appreciates the challenge of answering technical questions about specific pieces of a equipment.
“From one end of the spectrum to the other, I’ve gotten great feedback,” Kahl related regarding his tours. “Most people walk away very happy.”
Excursions and short rides take place when the Complex is open, but the schedules vary. Excursions are offered seasonally, and destinations change regularly. In 2014, passengers rode the rails to Moscow, Gouldsboro, Cresco, Tobyhanna, Delaware Water Gap, East Stroudsburg, and Carbondale. Reservations are often necessary for the coveted fall foliage tours, when trains take riders far outside the city for the best views of autumn’s splendor.
Especially affordable options for families are the Scranton Limited and Nay Aug Limited rides, which provide the thrill of embarking and riding on an old train into the city’s suburbs or a centuries-old park. The Nay Aug Limited also passes through an old tunnel embedded in the city’s hillside. Short rides are available primarily on weekends.
The Roundhouse is a popular stop on the tour, where visitors can watch the switching of huge locomotives and train cars on a massive turnstile. Railroad cars that met specific needs, such as dining and sleeping cars, the postal car, and lavishly decorated business/conference cars, are on display alongside many giant engines.
Extensive details, photos, virtual tours, and reservation information are available at www.nps.gov/stea/index.htm. After checking out the schedules, individuals may call 888-693-9391 to make reservations and prepare to set out full steam ahead!