Steamtown National Historic Site Scranton, Pa. Visited: July 21, 2006 NPS Site Visited: 315 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Museum, large collection of steam locomotives, working turntable and roundhouse located on an old railroad yard near downtown Scranton, Pa. and The Mall at Steamtown.
BEAUTY (2/10) Steamtown NHS’s official brochure includes no present-day pictures of the Site, only skillful pen and ink illustrations. Bad sign. Only the most eccentric trainspotter could find beauty at Steamtown.
Scores of freight cars, passenger cars, and steam locomotives sit on rows of train tracks which border the utilitarian rectangular architecture of The Mall at Steamtown and its parking garage. A long board-walked pedestrian ramp conveniently leads from the Mall’s Food Court to the Park. The Mall Ramp gives you a stellar close-up view of the rolling stock collection.
Perhaps too close. This intimate view fully reveals the cars’ dilapidated state. Generous amounts of rust, frayed wood and sympathy-inducing disrepair are the norm.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10) The Steamtown NHS’s claim to historical significance is dubious at best: the yard may have been represented in George Inness’s classic American landscape painting “The Lackawanna Valley”.
Ironically, the painting’s juggernaut iron horse and indelible train tracks, themselves a symbol of the coming industrial revolution and unstoppable progress, had to be reintroduced to the Lackawanna Valley in 1985 by a US Congressman. The trains had been living in Vermont.
The Scranton Yard was never a particularly central or important cog in our nation’s railroad network. The Yard has probably seen more attention since becoming a Park Site. Sadly, its notoriety is linked to “pork barrel” politics. The Park is oft-cited as a dastardly example of federal tax dollars pouring into an economically depressed city for pie-in-the-sky urban renewal purposes.
The Site’s lack of tangible historical significance, Canadian engines and proximity to its namesake Mall do not garner a positive national public image.
CROWDS (6/10) The Site was not empty but also was not as crowded as The Mall at Steamtown. We saw our sentiments of why exactly are we here? echoed on the faces of a model railroading club’s members, here on a team vacation to Pennsylvania railroad sites; their route was listed on the back of their T-shirts, rock concert tour style. Steamtown seemed like their least-fun destination.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Site is located in downtown Scranton, a few miles from Interstate 81. Take Exit 185, the Central Scranton Expressway. Turn left at the first stoplight and follow this road, Lackawanna Avenue, past seven sets of traffic lights to Cliff Avenue. Turn left into the Site’s vast parking lot. There are lots of signs.
After spending the morning looking for the Scranton AAA, we followed the wrong signs: the ones pointing us towards The Mall at Steamtown rather than Steamtown NHS. We parked in the Mall’s garage and perused the shops before traveling down the Mall Ramp to the Park Site.
The Park’s two-story museum is located in a series of roundhouse buildings which circle the working turntable. We got disoriented going up and down various steps of stairs and into buildings and rail cars we were not sure we should have entered.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Plaques, pins, posters and prints commemorating almost all the Mid Atlantic regional railroads in their various ages of mergers and rebirths are for sale here. And if we wanted to begin lives as trainspotters, the Steamtown bookstore offers what appear to be some good primer texts: Trainspotting Hot Spots, 2006 Tourist Trains, a Guide to North American Steam Locomotives and scores of color guides dedicated to the C&O, Lehigh and Hudson, Penn Central and Erie Lackawanna lines.
There is an entire aisle of children’s books and plenty of Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise for little ones. If you were looking for a wooden train whistle, you could pick one up at Steamtown. A nice museum store, but we were a little disappointed at the lack of authentic memorabilia and region-centric selection.
COSTS (2/5) The Park Museum entry fee is $6 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. A short railroad trip around the Park’s grounds runs $3. Longer excursions to Moscow, Pa. and Tobyhanna, Pa run $21 and $31 respectively.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) A Ranger made a brief appearance in the VC vestibule to orient one of the recently arrived train enthusiast groups. We may have seen another Ranger boarding a train that was preparing to leave for an excursion. If we had questions that delved beyond the static displays, we would have been hard pressed to find someone to ask.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The exhibits were too basic for the train enthusiast but too esoteric, too wordy, too numerous and not interactive enough for the casual visitor. We were simultaneously bored and overwhelmed.
FUN (3/10) We arrived at Steamtown NHS with peaking levels of cynicism and disdain. Naturally, Michael descended into a rambling self-righteous monologue. How dare the National Park Service sully its name with a pork barrel Site especially when an important railroading place likeGolden Spike NHS gets so little Appropriations love?
Mostly though, we were both angry because our Fodor’s Official National Park Guide Book told us that our National Parks Pass would not be honored. But when the ticket collector told us our Pass was good and that we would not have to pay $12 we felt a lot better. Maybe this place is not so bad at all. Let’s give it a chance. And we did.
We even enjoyed ourselves. We hopped on train cars, watched the film, snapped some photos, read some panels and decided to have a great time. Gradually, the incredulity regarding the Park’s existence returned as we learned more about the Site’s history.
What do you mean all the working locomotives are Canadian!!! Really, all the trains were bought from a failing museum in Vermont and moved to Scranton in the early 80’s AND then failed in Scranton until the feds came in and made it a Park Site.
It could be worse, tax paying tsk tskers. Scranton could have had the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania buy it a $400M baseball stadium and then say that it cannot afford to buy new players and then trade Bobby Abreu for four minor leaguers.
Less tangentially, the Steamtown NHS Museum stopped gaining our interest because the exhibits were boring and generic. Only the Park’s infamous history grabbed for our attention. Our fun levels had fittingly come full circle at the Roundhouse-based Site.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10) There are too many fun and interesting railroad excursions and/or museums in Pennsylvania to make Steamtown NHS your priority. The East Broad Top Railroad chugs up America’s oldest stretch of narrow gauge track near Mount Union, Pa., the elegant Horseshoe Curve amazes near Altoona and the Strasburg Railroad and Museum in Amish Country Lancaster houses an impressive collection of locomotives. You can even hop on a Strasburg train and take the beautiful Journey to Paradise, a much more desirable destination than Moscow, Pa. Sorry Aunt Helen.
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