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.

``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.''

Political muscle, too, plays a major role in the creation of this particular railroad, which helps explain why, alone among 68 officially designated national historic sites, Steamtown bears the name of a failed theme park rather than an illustrious person, place, or event.

The nonprofit Steamtown Foundation's array of railroad cars and engines was relocated to Scranton from Bellows Falls, Vt., in 1984, in hopes of netting a larger number of tourists. Anticipating a boost for the local economy, Scranton welcomed the move. But two years later the foundation was deep in debt. Its director and city officials approached the National Park Service about taking Steamtown under the federal wing.

The Park Service takes its time with such proposals. It researches candidate historic areas, consults with public and private interests, considers alternatives, and makes a recommendation to Congress. If the service is in favor and Congress acts, a management plan is drawn up, which typically takes three years.

This time, however, Congress chose to deviate from the normal procedures.

In the waning hours of the 1986 session, 13-term US Rep. Joseph McDade (R) of Pennsylvania attached an amendment to the federal budget bill designating Steamtown as a national historic site. There were no hearings on the merits of the site, no prior study, no review, and the Park Service was given just 11 months to pull its management plan together.

``On the basis of place in American history, no competent historian in my opinion would select Scranton and the Steamtown collection, as, in effect, the national railroad museum,'' wrote the Smithsonian transportation curator and senior historian, John White, in a letter to the secretary of the interior.

He characterized the collection as ``inconsequential,'' adding: ``How, then, do we justify spending such sums from the federal treasury?''

The Reagan administration asked Congress to rescind the first year's appropriation of $8 million, pending a judgment as to the ``historic character'' of the site, but Congress declined the invitation. About $17 million has been allocated so far, and that's just for starters.

The transformations underway will require several more years and continued congressional funding - an estimated $60 million, which does not include operating expenses.

These expenses could reach $5 million annually five years from now, if construction is substantially complete, planned activities are in full swing, and about 400,000 people visit, according to Park Service estimates. In the current Park Service budget, that figure would make Steamtown by far the most expensive of the nation's historic sites.

For comparison, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis commands an operating budget of about $3 million this year. About 2.5 million tourists are expected.

President Bush's budget proposal for 1990 ``zeroed out'' Steamtown, however, so annual political intercession may be necessary for the indefinite future, one park administrator says.

``Despite the problems,'' said Locomotive & Railway Preservation magazine in an otherwise scorching editorial, ``Steamtown is probably the only chance that North America will ever have to replicate `main line' steam railroading on a large scale using existing steam facilities.''

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