“I need to get out!” said my beloved. She works from home and although that has a lot of advantages, you can get rather house bound.
“OK!” says I. Where shall we go?
“Oh, I don’t know. How about Scranton?
Scranton!?! You don’t hear too many people list that as a weekend away destination! It’s an industrial city in Pennsylvania Coal Country, about three hours away from home, once famously described as the biggest scrap yard in the wold and thus making the Eighth Wonder!. We’ve driven past the outskirts numerous times on the way too and from Canada, but never stopped. The outskirts aren’t much to look at. And the only things I know about Scranton are that 1) it is the setting for the US version of “The Office (which I’ve never seen, but understand to be as cringeworthy as the British original, which I’ve also never seen) and 2) it is the birth place of one Joe Biden, formally US Vice President under Barack Obama and who famously said he’d like to take Donald trump behind a bike shed and thrash him! On the face of it, Scranton seems an odd place as a destination. Yet, infact, downtown is quite attractive, though rather quiet, and has an interesting early 19th Century older style of architecture, simmilar to that seen in American Gangster movies such as The Untouchables. And being that it is an industrial city based on mining and manufacturing , it has an abundance of industrial Museums. And Diane and I like Industrial Museums.
So we threw some overnight things in the car and off we toddled. 3 hrs later on a beautiful, but cold day, we arrived at our first port of call. This was the Lackawanna Mine Tour, where you can visit a reopened anthracite mine. Scranton, and indeed the whole of northeast Pennsylvania, is riddled with deep coal mines. This area of the northeastern US has some of the biggest anthracites deposits in the world and as such was an industrial powerhouse for over a century. People flocked from all over the world to work in the deep mines. Like in the UK, the industry declined in the second half of the 20th Centrury, and the mines closed. This particular mine closed in 1966. However, part of it was reopened in the early 90’s as a museum. It now sits in a landscaped multi-use park, just outside of Scranton.
The mine visit involves going underground. Unlike deep mines in the UK, which are ususally accessed via a cage lowered down a deep vertical shaft, this one is accessed via a sloped shaft down which runs a funicular railway car. To enter the mine, you ride down in the man rider, which is slowly winched down the track. Going underground, you reach a depth of about 300 ft below the surface, where the temperature is a nice steady 52 degrees year round.
Once undergrown, a tour of the open part of the mine is given by former mineworkers, who explain about how mines work, what the life was like, procedures, etc. Unlike when the mine was fully working, there is now reasonable lighting. But you still hear and see water dripping through the rocks, it is still dark and you realise you are a long way from the sky above.
The tour takes about an hour underground and the former miners were extremly proud of their work and knowledgeable. The mine is considered to be an active mine, so has to undergo all the safety rules and regulations that a working mine would. So it is proffesionally run and quite safe to be down there and doesen’t feel claustrophobic. Never-the-less, it was nice to come back to the surface. Even after an hour, you definitly get a feel of what a horrendously difficult, dangerous and dirty life it was working in the mines. It definitely makes one realise that no matter how we may complain about our jobs, the iritations we feel are nothing to the tribulations these miners faced daily.
Located next to the mine tour was the Anthracite Mining Museum. This was a self-guided museum dedicated to the role of the Anthracite industry in North Eastern Pennsylvania, the lives of the miners, and how society in the region was affected by mining. One of the first things I saw was a Welsh language bible. Why Welsh? Well, some of the very first immigrants were miners from Wales looking for a better life. This is reflected in that there are many names in Eastern PA that are welsh in origin. Diane was impressed that I could actually read and pronounce the words on the front cover! (I lived in Wales for many years!). Both museums are well worth the visit.
After finishing both museums, we headed for our hotel, which was in the old Lackawanna station. Downtown was rather quiet for a Saturday, espescially as there was a university right next door. I expected carousing students, but no, apart from a couple of (obviously student) bars, all was quiet. We had a meal and then went for a walk around the centre of town. Some of the architecture was fascinating and we found the old (and active) newspaper building, where you can look in off the street and see the printing presses at work. Unfortunately, they wern’t running late on a saturday evening, but it was still fascinating to see the newspaper at the heart of the city.
We had a good meal out (which for me consisted off the largest hot dog I’ve ever seen – wrapped in bacon and smothered with fried potatoes and a fried egg – oh so healthy, but oh so good!. We then stopped at a coffee shop and headed for the hotel and a good nights sleep. Being in the old railway station, this had advantages for me……
The folowing morning, after a quick cup of coffee, we said good bye to the hotel and headed down to the railway museum. This is Steamtown, a former derelict locomotive roundhouse and railway yard that has been rehabilitated and opened as a museum administered by the National Parks Service. The first thing we saw as we drove in was this….
Parked in the yard were a whole host of Alco diesels (some being former MLW ones, MLW being the Canadian Arm of Alco, and who built some of Alco’s designs under licence). Some of the loco’s chuntering in the yard were the lashup we’d seen the previous day from the hotel.
Also sitting in the yard was this…..
A legendary Union Pacific “BigBoy” 4000 class. This is considered to be the biggest loco to operate successfully on any North American railroads. One is today being returned to service by it’s original owner Union Pacific.
The museum consists of the stalls from the original roundhouse, plus other new buildings ina sympathetic style built to replace those demolished in the 60’s. All are situated around a working turntable. The idea behind the museum is not only to preseve the collection, but to give an idea of what a working railroad depot was like. the original stalls house some of the loco’s in the collection in an authentic setting, whilst the newer buildings house exhibits on the working life of railroad employees. A good deal of stock is available for view and the atmosphere in the working part of the shed (viewable from an above ground walkway really is quite authentic. Unfortunately, the light and space of the working shed does not make for good photography, but here goes….
Sat outside was the last remaining ICRR 2-8-0, basking in the sun.
Whilst pottering around the yard and occaisionally going for a spin on the turntable, was this F3 unit.
The loco was being used to shunt items around ready for the beginning of the main tourist season, and was also being used to train new railroad volunteers. A worker took us to see the companion B unit which was being worked on in the roundhouse. (A B unit is a locomotive with no cab or controls. It is a remotely controlled slave that is controlled from a loco with a cab (An A Unit).
Steam town also has the old backshops, where loco’s were repaired and rebuilt. This is now used as a restoration base, and we were taken to see the facilities back there. Most heritage railwys I know of would kill for these facilities.
Out in the yard were lines of stock that were awaiting restoration and rapir. I suspect that for some, it will never come. However, there is an active restoration program underway, and many items will be repaired for static display at least.
One of the amazing things to me was that it was allowed (and encouraged) to walk about the yard and explore, even though it was a working yard with moving trains etc. I mean, this is America – Land of lawyers and litigation! A working rail yard, though which freight trains pass, is a hazardowuns area. But its allowed and personally I feel better for it.
So, at the end of the day, we headed home. Scranton may not have the best reputation, but it is infact a suprisingly nice little town. Quiet, a little down at heal, but with some hidden gems for all ages. By no means did we cover them all. But then, I’m certain we’ll be going back one day – afterall, its not too far to go when Diane says “I need to get out of the house”