Rail Park Gathers Steam. National Park Service captures bygone era with rebuilt Pennsylvania railyard. TRACKING A TRAIN MUSEUM
STEAMTOWN National Historic Site is, for now, mostly a collection of rusting steam locomotives in a disused railroad yard, part of Scranton's faded industrial outback. But with $17 million in federal funds and some potent political clout, plus what might be termed historical imagination, the process of remaking the past has begun.Skip to next paragraph
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``We want to do something that really hasn't been attempted on this scale before,'' park ranger Kenneth Ganz says. ``We want to have an actual, working, steam railyard.''
Mr. Ganz was born in 1955, the year the last steam locomotive left the old Delaware, Lackawanna & Western yards; they closed for good in 1977. Although salvaging 35 steam engines and rebuilding the site into a 33-acre museum will take the National Park Service several years, it is scheduled to open to the public for the first full season on May 27.
By that time, two locomotives should be under steam and ready to pull visitors along on brief rides, the park service says. Longer excursions are a possibility. Several other engines and cars are on exhibit, as well as a little yellow handcar that can be pumped up and down along a short section of track.
On a graveled spur, a massive Union Pacific ``Big Boy'' looms. At 131 feet long and 1.2 million pounds, it is arguably the largest and most powerful steam locomotive ever built, capable of pulling five-mile-long trains over the Continental Divide at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
Some of the continuing restoration work may be on view as well. ``We don't want visitors to think everything is in tip-top shape and ready to roll, because nothing could be further from the truth,'' says Calvin Hite, a park administrator.
The roundhouse, for instance, is ``not very round and not much of a house, at this point,'' says Ganz. ``You look at it kind of hard and it will fall over.
``As you approach it, it looks pretty much like a burned-out hulk,'' he says. ``There were several fires in it through the years.'' But piles of debris have been cleared away, the walls are braced with two-by-fours, and plans have been drawn up for a rebuilding effort. One area would allow visitors to observe the stomachs of the steam engines from below.
Across several sets of tracks is an old locomotive repair shop, now in use again. The roof leaked all winter, and portable heaters labored to push back 15-degree cold. ``It tended to be a little frosty around the gills,'' says chief mechanic Chris Ahrens, a veteran of 30 years of railroad work.
His nine-man crew removed the smokebox cover of Canadian Pacific No. 2317, and inside its gaping boiler, a labyrinth of plumbing has been repaired. The boiler will hold enough steam to force the engine's six-feet-high driving wheels into motion for excursions.
``On some larger fittings,'' Mr. Ahrens says, ``you might use a three- or four-foot-long pipe wrench. For side rods and crank pins we might handle nuts that are four to six inches across.'' That job often requires a machinist and a helper using a sledgehammer. ``A steam-era railroad,'' he says, ``was a labor-intensive operation.''