It echoes in the thump of an off-balance washer, the whistle of a tea kettle, the whoosh of a gas furnace, the screech of a worn brake. But a real steam locomotive sounds like nothing else. It is an aural fingerprint on the imagination.
Your ears will recognize Steamtown.
This National Historic Site, formally opened in Scranton, Pa., by the National Park Service in 1995, may already be firmly lodged in the American imagination as a classic example of pork-barrel legislation -- a park the Park Service did not want.
But the millions of tax dollars spent have brought steam trains back in a museum rich with the sounds of machines that moved a nation and stirred its people for 150 years.
Pennsylvania has railroad memories in every corner, and eastern Pennsylvania is home to three world-class railroad museums. If you are among the 5 million visitors annually to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, you should take a trip to Strasburg to see the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the Toy Train Museum of the Train Collectors Association.
And if you've traveled that far, you should also come to Steamtown, a reawakening in downtown Scranton of the Lackawanna Railroad's roundhouse, repair shops and passenger line.
On view at these three museums are machines measured by their names: Big Boy, Mountain, Thermos Bottle, Floor Toy.
We'll get to the toys later. First, the big ones.
The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania has 34 locomotives on display, nearly all of them steam veterans of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Two dozen are kept in a cavernous hall reminiscent of the high-ceiling city stations where sunlight and soot swirled beneath glass and steel. The setting helps evoke the grandeur of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once the world's largest with 7,000 locomotives and a quarter of a million freight and passenger cars.
You can board several passenger cars, touch the horsehair seats and marvel at the primitive heaters and the ornate lighting. You can look through the windows at the china and silver of Pullman dining cars, and the deep-pillowed luxury of the company's sleepers.
In 1913, there were more than 10,000 Pullman sleepers on American rails, giving rest to 100,000 passengers a night in what was the world's biggest hotel chain.
One of the locomotives on display at the museum was a celebrity in its day. Pennsylvania Railroad's 7002, an Atlantic-class passenger locomotive, set a world speed record of 127.1 mph in 1905. The honor won that day is remembered with American flags that flank its smoke box.
Several different types of steam locomotives are on display, including three from old logging railroads that used sidearm cylinders -- a Climax, a Heisler and a Shay.
This great hall of locomotives and passenger cars is too quiet, however. The museum's strength is the authenticity of its rolling stock. Its weakness is in the interpretive areas, which lack audio and video reminders of what these machines were like under power. There is a narrated slide show near the depot scene in the hall that serves as a short introduction to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The story deserves more.
The yard outside includes a turntable with several cars and locomotives that the Friends of the Railroad Museum hope to restore. The biggest locomotives sitting in the yard are a Pennsylvania Railroad Mountain-class and a Nickel Plate Road Berkshire.
Several times a day, these steel ghosts are beckoned from across the street by the sounds, tremble and smell of working steam locomotives of the Strasburg Rail Road.
This excursion line, which traces its heritage back to 1845, operates two steam locomotives the year round, carrying tourists along a 5-mile stretch past the cornfields, double-floored Swiss barns and black buggies of the Amish.
It's a 45-minute journey, round trip, and you can ride in plain coaches, open-air cars with wood benches or in a Victorian dining car. Reservations are recommended with dinner.
Steamtown is about 90 miles north of Strasburg. It is home to an eclectic collection of steam locomotives assembled in the 1950s and '60s by F. Nelson Blount, a New England seafood magnate and train buff. Blount, who died in a 1967 plane crash, gathered engines where he could find them, and most of his collection came from railroads in New England.
In the 1970s, Scranton was one of several Pennsylvania cities that sought to house the state Railroad Museum. Strasburg won that competition, so in 1984, Scranton bought Blount's train collection. Under the legislative guile of Rep. Joe McDade, Scranton's long-serving Republican congressman, Steamtown was made a National Historic Site in 1986 -- despite the objections of the National Park Service.
Scranton was once home to five major railroads, which were built on the city's iron, steel and locomotive industries and, most of all, vast deposits of anthracite coal.
Anthracite burns hotter and cleaner than bituminous coal, and it was a common fuel for home heating in New York and elsewhere before pipelines made available Texas oil and natural gas.
Anthracite's clean-burning qualities made it the fuel of choice of Scranton's Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The company launched an advertising campaign built around a fictitious lady named Phoebe Snow, whose spotless white outfits touted the Lackawanna to passengers looking for a cleaner journey.
Not one of Blount's locomotives burns anthracite, but they make up for what they lack in local authenticity with size and, for three engines at least, animation.
Cold giants greet you as you enter Steamtown's parking lot. To the left is a Union Pacific Big Boy. At 600 tons and 132 feet, 10 inches long, it was one of the largest locomotives ever built.
Rail fans classify steam locomotives by their wheel and axle alignments, and the Big Boy had a very big set: 4-8-8-4. Other locomotives from the Reading Railroad (a 4-8-4 Pocono class) and the Grand Trunk Western (a 4-8-2 Mountain) greet you on the right.
The museum features a full roundhouse, with a 90-foot turntable. This is where the hot stars of Steamtown take center stage. Several times a day, a 0-6-0 switcher made in 1929 at the Baldwin Locomotive Works near Philadelphia rolls out under steam.
At mid-morning, Canadian National's No. 3254, a 2-8-2 Mikado-class locomotive, glides into the yard to bring together an excursion train bound for Moscow, Pa. The round trip takes 2 hours.
Bells ring. Whistles howl. Cylinders snort. Metal cries on metal.
"We don't just display locomotives here. We run a railroad. We show you how it worked," says park Ranger Don Myer, a former music teacher who brought his love of railroading to a job in Steamtown in 1989.
Engineers, firemen, conductors and maintenance crew are all National Park Service employees or licensed volunteers. Bill Withuhn, the Smithsonian's transportation curator, has even shoveled coal as fireman on the Baldwin No. 26.
Railroads kept their locomotives in roundhouses under steam, with the coal fires banked. The buildings offered a chance for inspection and light maintenance along with covered parking.
Most of Steamtown's roundhouse is given over to excellent interpretive displays. There's a theater with a recently made, sentimental film about the Lackawanna during Phoebe Snow's day. In other rooms, the workings of a steam locomotive are described and displayed in detail. A large model railroad of the Lackawanna's Scranton roundhouse and yard shows how the railroad operated when scores of steam locomotives were being serviced.
Half a steam locomotive's life was spent undergoing some sort of maintenance, which is a big reason they were replaced by diesels. But the heavy repairs helped make each steam locomotive a unique machine, with its own temperament and operating style. Steamtown does its job well in explaining how.
In the nine working bays of the roundhouse, visitors can view the action from walkways as maintenance crews sweat over rods and steam lines. There is a restored locomotive shop, where the machines are stripped down to their frames, behind the roundhouse that's open for escorted tours. The shop's machine tools are often needed to fabricate one-of-a-kind parts.
So what about the toys? All of these museums feature model-train layouts. The biggest and most kid-friendly are at the Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, where there are five layouts in different scales.
The museum also serves as headquarters of the Train Collectors Association, a global group with nearly 30,000 members who seek out tinplate toy trains.
The real attractions of the museum are not the layouts. They are on the shelves, where valuable collections of antique toy trains are on display. Lionel collectors will see many of the manufacturer's rarest items, and there are also important pieces, some more than 100 years old, from Bing, Marx, American Flyer and Maerklin.
One room of the museum is used as a reference library that contains part of the Train Collectors Association's vast store of books, magazines, technical manuals and catalogs. A librarian is on hand Fridays and Saturdays to help with inquiries from visitors.
The only train question the people there won't try to answer is how much your prized train is worth. But they'll point you to appraisal guides and collectors in your neighborhood.
When you go:
Getting there: Head north from Baltimore on Interstate 83 north.
* The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the Strasburg Rail Road and the Toy Train Museum are all on the east end of Strasburg on Route 741 and Paradise Lane.
* Scranton is about 90 miles north of Strasburg, and picking the best highway path can be tricky. Try the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension to Interstate 81.
* Steamtown is best reached off I-81, Exit 53 for the Scranton Central Expressway, which becomes Lackawanna Avenue. Follow the brown signs and turn left at Bridge Street.
Both Strasburg and Scranton offer excellent luxury hotels, the Old Strasburg Inn and the Radisson Lackawanna Station, a restoration of the railroad's old Scranton passenger station.
There are loads of motels and bed-and-breakfasts in Strasburg and the surrounding countryside. Scranton is an old industrial city that lost its better hotels when the coal, iron and railroad industries moved on. But there are plenty of motels in and around the city, off I-81.
Places to see
* Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Route 741, Strasburg, Pa.; 717-687-8628. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission $6 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 through 12. Family tickets for $16.
* The National Toy Train Museum, Paradise Lane, Strasburg, Pa.; 717-687-8976; www.traincollectors.org. Open daily May through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends only, April, November and December; closed January through March. Admission $3 for adults, $1.50 for kids ages 5 to 12.
* Strasburg Rail Road, Route 741, Strasburg, Pa.; 717-687-7522. Open year-round; departure times vary by season. Adults, $7.75 to $12; children, $4 to $6. Luncheon and dinner aboard the dining car available; a four-course meal (train ride included) sells for about $30.
* Steamtown National Historic Site, 150 S. Washington Ave., Scranton, Pa.; 717-340-5200 or 888-693-9391; www.NPS.gov/stea. Open year-round, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Moscow excursions run weekends, July through October. Admission to the museum $6 for adults, $2 for children. Excursion tickets for the Moscow trip $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 15. A combined museum-excursion ticket is $14 for adults, $6 for children.
Information: Pennsylvania Dutch Welcome Center, 800-PADUTCH (800-723-8824); on the Web: www.800padutch.com.
-- Jim Landers
Pub Date: 02/28/99