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THE GLORY OF STEAM RAILROADING LIVES
ON IN STEAMTOWN

by Bob Brooke

 

The huge steam locomotive chugs into view, its smokestack billowing clouds of white smoke and steam high into the air. As it pulls into the station, its bell clanging and a big whoosh coming from its brakes, a small crowd of men, women and children waits to board the legendary Phoebe Snow for a nostalgic afternoon excursion from Steamtown National Historic Site to the town of Moscow, Pennsylvania.

No, Steamtown isn't a place, it's a state of mind that represents all the railroad towns in the U.S. It's an imaginary place where everyone can forget the high-tech life of today and remember the romance of the old-fashioned steam passenger trains. The excursion is only a part of Steamtown. In addition, it's one of the nation's largest and most famous collections of steam-era locomotives and other memorabilia.

A millionaire seafood processor, F. Nelson Blount, purchased the narrow-gauge Edaville Railroad in 1955, having been obsessed with trains since childhood. Soon after, the Boston and Maine Railroad donated a locomotive, tender, combine and three coaches and Blount's collection was on its way.

By 1960, he had gathered quite a collection and moved it to North Walpole, New Hampshire. Three years later he established the Steamtown Foundation for the Preservation of Steam and Railroad Americana and donated 20 locomotives and other pieces of equipment.

Nelson Blount was killed in a plane crash in 1965 and by that time, over 50 locomotives had been gathered. The harsh winters were hard on the aging equipment and the foundation sought another home for the collection. Scranton was selected and the first excursion was run in the Fall of 1984. Over 40,000 people turned out in the next eight weeks and Steamtown was on its way.

Examples of the collection are on display in the railyard. Visitors are able to climb up onto the Union Pacific's "Big boy," the world's largest steam locomotive, weighing over 1.2 million pounds and stretching more than 130 feet in length. There are also handcars, a railway post car, and the "Prince of Liege," a locomotive built in Belgium in 1877 and the oldest in the collection.

It's appropriate that Scranton was chosen for Steamtown, for it was here that the steam age was born. While iron furnaces produced the first T-rails, North America's first locomotive tugged coal from Lackawanna County to market. Also, Scranton contained an industrial complex which, over the years, produced more than a thousand of the nation's earliest steam locomotives.

Every summer, a continuous stream of railroad fans travel through the portals of time to the glory days of yesteryear when steam was king and the nation was linked by a web of rails. They climb into the cab of a vintage locomotive, sort mail in a railway post office car, sit down in the train's office--the caboose--imagine what it's like to drive a steam locomotive. Afterwards, they view historic photographs of the railyard in action in the new museum or join a ranger on an interpretive walk through the railyard and roundhouse.

The restoration shop is actively repairing and preserving rolling stock with a heritage in various railroads. A history museum and technology museum tell of the advances in railroading safety features brought about with the help of the labor unions and the various jobs to be found on the railroad.

Interpretation here takes on a more human side. National Park personnel have accumulated scores of interviews with living railroaders to help them tell the story of steam. A new 30-minute film, based on these interviews, will be shown for the first time this summer in the new 250-seat Steamtown theater adjacent to the museum. A bookstore has been installed in the former oil house, where a display shows the machinery used to extract oil from the engines.

Steamtown is dedicated to preserving the culture of railroading during the steam years. This National Historic Site contains a working roundhouse, with three operating locomotives. A vast locomotive shop complex allows plenty of space for repairs to the iron horses of yesterday.

Four major steam excursions are being planned for this summer as part of a commemorative effort. The tentative schedule calls for an overnight trip to Syracuse, New York, and another run to Corning, new York. a Scranton-Binghamton trip and an Historic viaduct trip to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania via Binghamton as part of the labor Day weekend. A nominal fee (yet to be announced) will be charged for all trips.

The trip to Lackawaxen will be of particular interest to rail fans because it will cross three of the most famous railroad bridges in the nation, including the Tunkhannock Viaduct, the largest concrete arch span in the world, in the village of Nicholson, Pennsylvania, and the Marten Creek Viaduct, a few miles to the north in Kingsley, Pennsylvania. The third bridge, the Starrucca Viaduct, in Lanesboro was built out of blue stone in 1848.

A gathering of seven steam locomotives being billed as "The Great Rail Reunion," will be held July as part of the Fourth of July celebration. A replica of "Tom Thumb," an engine built in 1830, which raced against a horse and lost, will also be on display courtesy of the B&O Railroad.

This article first appeared in The New York Post.

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