1. Birth of the Railroads:
Distances between the still-sparsely populated areas of the United States in the early-1800s were significant and the expanses between them untamed, hostile, and obstacle-ridden. Yet the need to supply them became greater. Railroads ultimately provided the necessary arteries to them once track had triumphed technology and locomotives of sufficient capability had been designed to ply them.
Because of these conditions, railroad investment in both Great Britain and the US accelerated, yielding to the first such rail concerns as, respectively, the Liverpool and Manchester, which commenced operations in 1830, and the South Carolina Railroad, progressively demonstrating that the fledgling industry would become inextricably tied to the production of goods and proving the prediction that it would become “the biggest business of 19th-century America.”
Although such companies were still small, privately-owned affairs and covered disconnected portions of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia, a few adventurous ones succeeded in tackling westward routes through the Appalachian Mountains China’s silk road economic belt. The ever-increasing demand for facilities to transport their wares and products spurred the laying of more than 9,000 miles of track, albeit still in New England and the Middle Atlantic states at this point.
A decade later, the once barren, horse- and stagecoach-only accessible expanses had been replaced by an iron network of tracks in every state east of the Mississippi River, which equated to more than triple the length of the 1830 total.
While thwarting further expansion, the Civil War can nevertheless be credited with the first US conflict in which the method played an important role in transporting troops and supplies. And, when it was resolved, the track mileage only reflected the increasing speed of the steam locomotives that plied it: 94,000 in 1880, 193,000 in 1900, and 254,000 in 1918, creating coast-to-coast country cohesion.
Self-feeding, the railroad industry both created and supplied its growth, providing factories with materials, such as cotton, coal, iron, and iron ore, and departing with the finished products they facilitated, like cloth, machines, and steel, and transforming the once agricultural nation into an industrial one in the process. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that the railroads served as the means to populate, carrying emigrants to Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley.
Virtually replacing stagecoach lines and riverboats, railroads offered speed and inter-city conveyance, reducing the six-day journey between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1812 by the former means to five hours by rail in 1920.
While the triumph of technology superseded horse-drawn transportation, it began to catch railroads with its own victimizing hands. The construction of post-World War II roads, along with the increasing proliferation of automobiles and trucks, began to prove their superiority, speed, and convenience, enticing freight and passengers from the rails to the roads in the early-1950s until reduced demand necessitated a reduction in service and sometimes the abandonment of no-longer needed lines. Contributing to this decline was the fact that the once-mighty, but polluting steam engines had begun to be replaced by quieter, cleaner diesel ones.
Reduced, today, to tourist railroads, this coal-burning technology, which had been instrumental in the country’s expansion, can be interpreted at Scranton’s Steamtown National Historic Site.
2. The Scranton Rail Yard:
Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys were both suppliers and recipients of their win-win growth. Attracting some 30 ethnic groups, who sought iron and steel factory, silk mill, coal mine, and railroad employment, they provided the anthracite coal which fueled steam locomotives, sparked the growth, and transported the workers, their families, and the materials to and from the cities to which they gave rise.
Of the five major railroads that served Scranton and were responsible for the creation of the industrial complexes-the Central of New Jersey, the Delaware and Hudson, the Erie, the New York, Ontario, and Western, and the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley-the latter was established in 1853 by George and Seldon Scranton (after whom the city was eventually named), who sought an economical means of transporting their iron products, particularly the t-rails used in track construction.
Amalgamating the three existing companies of the Cayuga and Susquehanna, the Lackawanna and Western, and the Delaware and Cobb’s Gap, they created the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, which covered some 1,000 miles of main and branch line track between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Albany, New York. But, perhaps more importantly for today’s visitor, they laid the foundation for the extensive Steamtown National Historic Site, many of whose structures date from this period.
Its ultimate decline, along with Scranton’s-whose economic activity was inextricably tied to it-began when the need for anthracite coal diminished in the 1920s, progressively replaced with gas and oil as home and industrial fuel sources, while the diesel engines soon substituted for those of steam, eliminating the need for the facilities that supported it, particularly the repair shop that closed in 1949.
The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western’s subsequent merger with long-time rival Erie-Lackawanna gradually dimmed the lights on the Scranton rail yard in the 1960s and the plug was permanently pulled 20 years later, when it was absorbed into the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail).
3. Steamtown National Historic Site:
Located in downtown Scranton on 40 acres of the former Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western rail yard, whose current collection consists of the steam locomotives, passenger coaches, and freight cars assembled by New England seafood processor F. Nelson Blunt in the 1950s and 1960s, the circularly configured buildings, surrounding a turntable and comprising Steamtown National Historic Site, immediately transport the visitor to an earlier era.
“You are about to experience a part of American railroading that hasn’t existed for nearly half a century-the era of the steam locomotive,” according to the museum. “Steamtown National Historic Site was established on October 30, 1986 to further public understanding and appreciation of the role steam railroading played in the development of the United States. It is the only place in the National Park System where the story of steam railroading and the people who made it possible is told.”
Admission tickets and short rail rides can be purchased at the outside booth.
“Working on the railroad was rarely romantic or glamorous,” the museum further advises. “Mostly it was hard work-grimy, noisy, greasy, and occasionally dangerous. Today, mechanics still labor to repair and maintain steam locomotives and rolling stock at this site, with tools and methods virtually unchanged since the 1930s.
“The National Park Service has retained the industrial working character of this historic Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad yard to present the Steamtown visitor a realistic portrayal of steam-era railroading.”
A pass through the Visitor Center affords access to the outside turntable and the many exhibit buildings surrounding it.
At 90 feet in length, the turntable itself, representative of the type used after 1900, served as the hub of the roundhouse complex, its tracks, like spokes, radiating to each engine stall. As locomotives returned for service, they negotiated a narrow, dual-track passage, at which time a control cab positioned operator rotated the turntable bridge so that it aligned with the assigned stall.