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Blowing Off Steam In Scranton

A Lackawanna diesel engine, No.664 drives off the train turntable at Steamtown, Scranton.  This diesel locomotive was built in 1948 and belongs to Anthracite Railroads Historical Society, Inc.  The train is on temporary loan to the National Park service to operate the park's excursions.

A Lackawanna diesel engine, No.664 drives off the train turntable at Steamtown, Scranton. This diesel locomotive was built in 1948 and belongs to Anthracite Railroads Historical Society, Inc. The train is on temporary loan to the National Park service to operate the park’s excursions.

KEEPING AMERICA ON TRACK | Sharon Henry

So, we’ve discovered turntables aren’t just for DJ’s – train operators use them too, not to spin records, but to rotate train engines from one direction to another. Of course train turntables are of a totally different design and scale to the music variety but they do share the concept of rotation. (As well as the fate of falling from mainstream to specialist use.)

The train turntable is quite a fascinating contraption and even me, a girl, got excited to see one in action.

Lackawanna No.664 half way on the turntable in Steamtown, Scranton.  This diesel locomotive was built in 1948 and belongs to Anthracite Railroads Historical Society, Inc.  The train is on temporary loan to the National Park service to operate the park's excursions.

Lackawanna No.664 half way on the turntable in Steamtown, Scranton. This diesel locomotive was built in 1948 and belongs to Anthracite Railroads Historical Society, Inc. The train is on temporary loan to the National Park service to operate the park’s excursions.

No Going Back For Steam Trains

Let’s set the scene. It was blistering hot and we were in Scranton, Pennsylvania, strolling around Steamtown, a locomotive and train museum. Steamtown has a large collection of steam locomotives, freight and passenger cars, which are used to tell the history of the USA’s railroads and their importance in the country’s development.

Steamtown, Scranton train turntable video. (YouTube, 2m23s)

The turntable is the centrepiece of the museum; a large circular cut-out with a 90 foot, rail track across the middle. Feeding onto it, like spokes of a large wheel are multiple train tracks. Because steam locomotives were mostly limited to forward motion, the turntable was invented as a method of rotating them to allow return journeys.

The 90 foot long track in the middle of Steamtown's turntable.  The museum is built around a working turntable and a roundhouse which are largely replications of the original Scranton facilities.

The 90 foot long track in the middle of Steamtown’s turntable. The museum is built around a working turntable and a roundhouse which are largely replications of the original Scranton facilities.

When diesel locomotives came on the scene with reverse capabilities, steam trains and turntables were slowly phased out and eventually rendered obsolete. Except, of course, a certain few that have been restored for museums like Steamtown.

We luckily timed our visit for a turntable demonstration and watched a diesel train (which could easily be a friend of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’) be spun 45 degrees onto the complex’s rail tracks ready for a day’s excursion. The whole process took all of ten minutes. A pretty neat trick.

"Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad?  Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them."  Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854. Steamtown, Scranton.

“Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854.
Steamtown, Scranton.

Boxcars were the backbone of the railroad's non-bulk freight business, the containers or sea-vans of the railroad. This one is on display outside the entrance to Steamtown, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Boxcars were the backbone of the railroad’s non-bulk freight business, the containers or sea-vans of the railroad. This one is on display outside the entrance to Steamtown, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Wow that's a BIG one!  Reading No. 2124 on display in Steamtown, Scranton.  Known as 'Queen of the Iron Horse Rambles.'  Originally built in 1920s.  Rebuilt 1947 and used as a heavy duty freight locomotive to transport coal.  This steam engine burnt culm, a waste product of anthracite coal.  She was retired in 1956.

Wow that’s a BIG one! Reading No. 2124 on display in Steamtown, Scranton. Known as ‘Queen of the Iron Horse Rambles.’ Originally built in 1920s. Rebuilt 1947 and used as a heavy duty freight locomotive to transport coal. This steam engine burnt culm, a waste product of anthracite coal. She was retired in 1956.

The Stream Train Era That Made America Great

Steamtown is full of interesting artefacts coupled with documented firsthand accounts by the very people who built, worked and travelled the steam railroads. Their words, voices and images, like ghosts, convey snapshots of the steam railroading era, from early 1800s to mid 1900s.

Armies of immigrant men, seeking fortunes in a new land were hired to lay tracks across the country. Work was gruelling but plentiful. In 1852 around 9,000 miles had been laid; by the end of WWI in 1918 the network had expanded to more than 254,000 miles.

"Track workers were required to be strong, tireless, and be able to tamp a tie or pound a spike squarely.  Photo dated: 6-17-32."  Text written on picture reads: "Raising track in yard parallel to crane."

“Track workers were required to be strong, tireless, and be able to tamp a tie or pound a spike squarely. Photo dated: 6-17-32.” Text written on picture reads: “Raising track in yard parallel to crane.”

The value of a human life was quite low in the early days of steam trains, as depicted in this poster on display inside the Steamtown museum, Scranton.

The value of a human life was quite low in the early days of steam trains, as depicted in this poster on display inside the Steamtown museum, Scranton.

The Steamtown museum is full of fascinating history showing not only the technological journey of the American railroads, but also the social issues of the time, as demonstrated in this powerful 1893 cartoon.

The Steamtown museum is full of fascinating history showing not only the technological journey of the American railroads, but also the social issues of the time, as demonstrated in this powerful 1893 cartoon.

The museum at Steamtown, Scranton, has comprehensive exhibits about the history and technology of steam railroads in the United States.

The museum at Steamtown, Scranton, has comprehensive exhibits about the history and technology of steam railroads in the United States.

A really cool detailed model the original DL&W Scranton yard, inside the Steamtown museum, Pennsylvania.

A really cool detailed model the original DL&W Scranton yard, inside the Steamtown museum, Pennsylvania.

An extract inside the museum struck a chord with me, written by Erick Sonnichsen from ‘I Was Workin’ On The Railroad,’ American Mercury, June 1930. “We worked with picks, raising the tracks and tamping stones beneath the ties. It was back-breaking work. After twenty minutes I had to stand up to stretch… My back was stiff. Blisters were on my hands. Worst of all was the hunger gnawing at my stomach, which seemed to have shrunk to nothing.” This snippet really painted a picture.

The US Railroad Post Office

We walked through the complex and sat inside trains and carriages feeling a sense of the travel conditions in those days, be it by luxurious business class or through hitching a free ride amongst storage boxes in a freight car.

Darrin making himself comfortable inside one of the freight cars; travelling hobo style. This is one has been preserved as a display piece inside the Steamtown museum, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Darrin making himself comfortable inside one of the freight cars; travelling hobo style. This is one has been preserved as a display piece inside the Steamtown museum, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Those who travelled onboard Erie No.3 business class car also dined in style. Circa 1930s. Steamtown, Scranton.

Those who travelled onboard Erie No.3 business class car also dined in style. Circa 1930s.
Steamtown, Scranton.

Lounging in one of the staterooms onboard Erie No.3 business class car built in 1929. Steamtown, Scranton.

Lounging in one of the staterooms onboard Erie No.3 business class car built in 1929.
Steamtown, Scranton.

Luggage set for journey onboard business class Erie No.3 car built in 1929 by the Pullman Company.  It has two staterooms, two bedrooms, galley, dining room, crew quarters and observation room.  It accommodated nine passengers and two crew members. Steamtown, Scranton.

Luggage set for journey onboard business class Erie No.3 car built in 1929 by the Pullman Company. It has two staterooms, two bedrooms, galley, dining room, crew quarters and observation room. It accommodated nine passengers and two crew members.
Steamtown, Scranton.

The museum has umpteen stories. I particularly liked those of the travelling hobos who communicated through graffiti messages left on fences or walls. They informed each other of useful titbits like, a kind lady lives here, or bible talk will get you a free meal there or simply, beware of dog.

It’s the kind of travel stories that ‘Freight Train Eddie‘ a busker we met in Nashville could probably tell.

Hoboes left these graffiti messages on fences and walls for others passing through an area.  Can you guess what each of these graffiti messages meant? Answers on the next photo. Steamtown museum, Scranton.

Hoboes left these graffiti messages on fences and walls for others passing through an area. Can you guess what each of these graffiti messages meant? Answers on the next photo.
Steamtown museum, Scranton.

How many did you guess right?  All useful information left for fellow hoboes passing through an area. Steamtown museum, Scranton.

How many did you guess right? All useful information left for fellow hoboes passing through an area.
Steamtown museum, Scranton.

Louisville & Nashville No.1100 RPO (Railway Post Office) car, built 1914, now a museum exhibit in Steamtown, Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Postal clerks, experts in the geography of the country, travelled in crews aboard these cars to sort and pouch mail.  A video played inside this display carriage comes courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Louisville & Nashville No.1100 RPO (Railway Post Office) car, built 1914, now a museum exhibit in Steamtown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Postal clerks, experts in the geography of the country, travelled in crews aboard these cars to sort and pouch mail. A video played inside this display carriage comes courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Poignant stories also came from the Railroad Post Office mail clerks. From 1864 to 1977 mail was sorted by hand on trains for distribution to local post offices up and down the country. Seated inside those mail carts we watched videos of postal workers’ speaking nostalgically of the skills required, including geographical knowledge and the ability to decipher handwriting. Most evident was the camaraderie amongst the postal teams.

Steamtown’s Big Toys For Boys

Stiff competition from motor vehicles and airplanes pretty much marked the end of the line for train travel in the USA. People preferred other modes of transport.

Steamtown is a 40 acre, National Historic Site that opened in 1986 on the site of the former Scranton yard of Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. It’s main collection of steam locomotives and cars were originally the private collection of millionaire, F Nelson Blount, who died in 1967.

Illinois Central No. 790.  Originally built in November 1903 for the Chicago Union Transfer Railway Co and is the only surviving locomotive of the company.  Rebuilt and modernised in 1918 as a superheated heavy freight locomotive.  Sold to Nelson Blount in 1966. Now proudly on display in Steamtown, Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Illinois Central No. 790. Originally built in November 1903 for the Chicago Union Transfer Railway Co and is the only surviving locomotive of the company. Rebuilt and modernised in 1918 as a superheated heavy freight locomotive. Sold to Nelson Blount in 1966. Now proudly on display in Steamtown, Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Inside the Steamtown museum, Pennsylvania, a cut-out section of a steam engine demonstrates the engineering inside of a working machine.

Inside the Steamtown museum, Pennsylvania, a cut-out section of a steam engine demonstrates the engineering inside of a working machine.

Reading No. 902 diesel train built June 1950 to replace the passenger steam locomotives operated by the Reading company.  It was retired in 1981 and in 1995 received a complete restoration.  No. 902 has been on display in Steamtown, Scranton, since 2010 and is now out of service.

Reading No. 902 diesel train built June 1950 to replace the passenger steam locomotives operated by the Reading company. It was retired in 1981 and in 1995 received a complete restoration. No. 902 has been on display in Steamtown, Scranton, since 2010 and is now out of service.

For train enthusiasts, kids and adults alike, like the friend we have whose loft holds a massive train set, Steamtown would make a fascinating visit. The museum captures all aspects of the steam era from the human interest element to the technology side. Although, dare I say it, boys might enjoy this more than girls…Darrin certainly did.

Admission costs $7 for adults and under 16’s get in for free. Address: Steamtown National Historic Site, 150 South Washington Ave., Scranton, PA.

A wide angled view of the train turntable from inside the roundhouse building that has been reconstructed from remnants of a 1932 structure. Steamtown museum, Scranton.

A wide angled view of the train turntable from inside the roundhouse building that has been reconstructed from remnants of a 1932 structure.
Steamtown museum, Scranton.

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