The United States National Park Service offers something for practically everyone. You can find the world’s largest tree and the world’s longest cave in our national parks. You can climb to the top of Mount Denali and stand on a summit at an altitude of 20,000 feet, or you can go almost 300 feet below sea level in Death Valley. The park service also oversees numerous seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, historic sites, and even operates four parkways for vehicle traffic (via
At its core, the National Park Service seeks to preserve our nation’s natural treasures, as well as to share the story of our union, and a large part of our history is that of exploration and transportation. From the earliest travels through our country by canoe or covered wagon, to the building of hundreds of miles of canals, to our modern age of vehicle and air traffic, the story of the United States is of a people perpetually on the move. And we certainly can’t speak of transportation without mentioning the most historically important one of all: trains and railroads.
On a sunny, if chilly, Saturday afternoon, I set off for the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to visit a US National Park museum dedicated to the steam engine locomotive.
Steamtown National Historic Site, located on the former rail yard of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, was established in 1986 to preserve the history of the days when steel behemoths would rolls across the nation, hauling ores, livestock, produce, mail, manufactured goods, and passengers.
So come along, then, on a journey to northeastern Pennsylvania, as I indulge my inner-8 year old boy’s sense of wonder at the majesty of trains!
Steamtown National Historic Site
Steamtown National Historic Site sits in northeastern Pennsylvania in the city of Scranton. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive from New York City, and a little over 2 hours from Philadelphia.
With blue skies and hardly any clouds, it was a great day for driving. Traffic was mercifully light, and forty-five minutes after leaving home I crossed into Pennsylvania along I-78. With my wife out of town for a family event, this would be another solo trip by your humble scribe.
I exited I-81 toward Scranton and turned onto President Biden Expressway. Formerly known as the Central Scranton Expressway, in 2021 the Scranton City Council voted unanimously to rename the highway to mark Scranton-born Joseph R. Biden’s ascension to the White House (via Wikipedia).
I think we’ve found the right place!!
A tour of Steamtown includes the rail yard, the roundhouse (more on that in a bit), and a museum. Unfortunately, due to heating system issues, the indoor museum was closed on the day of my visit. Still, there was plenty to see, such as this D.L.&W. hopper car. Hopper cars carry loose bulk items such as grain, ore, and coal.
If you gave 8-year old me a piece of paper and asked me to sketch a steam locomotive, it would have probably ended up looking a lot like Illinois Central No. 790. Built in 1903, its career spanned half a century as it hauled heavy freight across the central United States before being retired in the 1950s. It was the only one of its class to continue to operate after most steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives (via Wikipedia).
This small wooden handcar made me smile. Handcars are typically used for railroad track inspections. However, I always associate it with one of my favorite scenes from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?
Steamtown resides in what was once an active rail yard. The centerpiece is the still-operational turntable. The turntable was designed to rotate a steam locomotive, as steam engines typically can only run efficiently in one direction (via American-Rails). Using a hydraulic system, the turntable could fully rotate an entire steam engine – some of which weigh over a million pounds!
Although the museum was closed, the adjacent roundhouse was open to the public. A roundhouse would offer locomotive mechanics the ability to service and repair these enormous machines while being protected from the elements.
Canadian Railways Number 3254 was built in 1917. 3254 was in service until the late 1950s, all the more impressive after it suffered significant damage in a 1941 head-on collision with another train. Steamtown took possession of the train in 1987. It had been used on excursions by the museum until 2012, when further investigations revealed the locomotive’s frame was still bent from the 1941 accident. It now is a stationary museum piece within the roundhouse (via Wikipedia).
Each time I see a steam engine up close, I’m always struck by just how massive they are.
Although no longer in running condition, Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western No. 565 is one of only two surviving locomotives once operated by the DL&W railroad.
Heading back outside from the Roundhouse, I saw DL&W caboose no. 889 sitting by itself. The caboose once served a critical role, housing the train crew at the rear who would be responsible for monitoring the train for any issues once underway. With the rise of computerized sensors and monitors, the caboose has largely disappeared from use.
Wandering around the rail yard, I spotted several other historic trains, including Rahway Valley No. 15. Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, PA in 1916, it was in use hauling freight until 1953. It is currently inoperative, and would require significant work to get it back in running condition.
Canadian National NO. 47 has certainly seen better days. Built in 1914, its career lasted until 1961. It has since been a museum piece, and has not moved under its own power since it was retired.
On the other hand, Reading Company No. 2124 looks absolutely gorgeous. Built in 1923, this train, although non-operational, is kept is beautiful condition. Fun fact: it had a guest role as a movie set for a scene in 1960’s From the Terrace, staring Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman (via Wikipedia).
The centerpiece of the collection is this Union Pacific No. 4012. Built in 1941, it is one of eight surviving “Big Boy” locomotives. Weighing in at over 1.2 million pounds, this behemoth was designed to equal the pulling power of FOUR typical locomotive engines. With a top speed of 80 miles per hour, the Big Boy is considered the peak of steam engine performance. Although currently non-operational, the staff of Steamtown believe that 4012 could be brought back into running order fairly easily (via Wikipedia).
One of the park rangers at Steamtown suggested I walk across the parking lot to another museum focused on travel by rail. Operated by Lackawanna County, the Electric City Trolley Museum celebrates the history of electric streetcars.
Admission to the museum is $7 for adults, but as the museum was hosting a special event, the price was dropped to $3 for the day. I paid the nominal fee and began to explore. This Birney-style streetcar was built in the 1920s. Lightweight and simple in design, the Birney could be operated by only one person, designed to offer streetcar companies a cost-effective way to compete with increased pressure from the personal automobile.
The Birney had its floorboards open, exposing the mechanical bits that make it run. This small electric motor (well-label by the museum) is all it takes to power the streetcar on its journeys.
Standing at the conductor’s station for the Birney, I was struck by just how simple the controls were. It reminded me of the design of the St. Charles streetcars my wife and I rode in New Orleans this past summer.
I also appreciated the period-correct ads on the top of the streetcar.
I learned a lot about trolley operations, and special attention throughout the museum was given to the danger of the third rail. In urban environs, a trolley is typically powered by an overhead cable, but in suburban and rural areas, or underground, the trolley draws current from a third rail that runs beside the tracks, which carries up to 750 volts of power (ouch!). A piece of a third rail can be seen in the lower right of this display.
The reduced admission was to encourage visitors to attend the model train show that was running throughout the museum. On my way out of the museum, I asked the staff if they had any recommendations for lunch, and one of them asked me if I would mind eating at a diner… I told him that “diner” was the magic word!
Less than a mile away from the museum is the Glider Diner and Restaurant. Established in 1948, the Glider has been serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hungry visitors for over 60 years.
As I entered the diner, I did not see a hostess station, and so was unsure of how to get seated. An elderly woman, sitting with her family at the back of the restaurant, yelled, “Just sit anywhere you like, hon!” I smiled sheepishly and turned beet-red as the entire diner stared at me. I slunk off to a table, and everyone turned back to their meals. “Tourist,” they probably all thought.
Fortunately, any lingering embarrassment was quickly swept away by friendly service, reasonable prices, and excellent food! I chowed down on a cheeseburger, along with a plate of fries. Both were excellent, and left me fueled up and ready to tackle the two hour drive home.
Yet again, the Accord got me to my destination comfortably and with ease. Glancing at my odometer as I pulled into the garage, I saw that 210,000 miles is fast approaching. Onward! Automotive Updates
Before closing, I wanted to share a pair of automotive updates: a repair for one of the vehicles in our garage, and a friend’s high mileage milestone.
First, Grace, our 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, had been making an obnoxious squeaking sound from the rear wheels at low speeds, and also seemed hesitant to release the parking brake. Several dollars later, she was equipped with new rear rotors, calipers, and pads, and all is quiet once again. With over 95,000 miles on the odometer, let’s hope that’s the last service until the big 100,000 mile mark!
Meanwhile, my friend Justin continues his inexorable climb to a million miles! There are now less than 10,000 miles until he crosses over into the mileage stratosphere on his 2003 Honda Accord coupe. His vehicle was also recently profiled on the automotive news website The Drive – check it out! Wrapping Up
Steamtown National Historic Site is a fantastic place for kids of all ages to see up close the machines that once roamed our nation, as the sound of the steam engines’ chuga-chuga-chuga resounded through valleys, mountains, forests, and plains. Steamtown is free to visit, although the museum does operate excursions on some of its trains, and there is an additional fee if you want to join those trips. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm (although it is closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). If you are in northeastern Pennsylvania, Steamtown is definitely worth a detour!
And thanks, as always, for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.
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6 thoughts on “Steamtown!”
I bet this was really fun to see in person. You said No. 4012 was the centerpiece of the collection. It looks to be in incredibly good shape. They really made it look nice.
Congrats on nearly 210k. You’ll probably hit 215k pretty soon.
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4012 had its exterior refurbished, and during that process is when (if I remember right) the staff determined that the train could be made to run again pretty easily. I agree – it looks fantastic!
And thanks on the early congrats – the next big milestone is 222,222!!
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It’s too bad the museum was closed for the day but it still looks like you still got a lot out of the visit. You took some great shots of the trains. The black and white pics are especially cool with my favorite being the lonely caboose. And congrats on 210,000 miles!
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Thanks! I’d love to say the black and white photos were artistic inspiration, but actually I was trying to hide a hazy, white sky. 😄
Looks like a good trip! I’m sure ur dad would have liked it too. I liked the streetcar. I always wanted to ride one. Lunch looked good too!
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I’m surprised you didn’t take a streetcar when you in New Orleans! It was a really fun trip to Scranton – thanks for reading!!