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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.