Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All Abooooard! A Stop at Steamtown NHS

Trains greet visitors as they arrive to park at Steamtown National Historic Site.

Where can you find a Park Ranger wearing overalls and an engineer's cap instead of the iconic green uniform and Ranger hat? Where can the magic of the Island of Sodor and the Polar Express be touched by a 4-year-old's little hands? Where can you climb inside the rail cars that most children can only imagine from stories like The Little Red Caboose and The Boxcar Children series?

Only at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA.

If you live outside of Pennsylvania, its very possible you've never heard of this little gem under the National Parks Service umbrella. I know I never had and I have two train-loving boys and only live two states away. And that's truly a shame, because this is one of the most unique National landmark we have yet been to. And it should be on the must-do list for every steam and smoke loving child under the age of 95.

I actually stumbled across Steamtown while doing some pre-trip planning for our short jaunt up to Massachusetts. I was scrounging around the internet looking for something to do or see on our way home that would help make it feel like more of a fun road trip and less of a marathon drive for a quick friend's wedding. Of course, since I have the National Parks Passport, I inevitably ended up on the National Parks website to see if we'd be passing by someplace where I could get my book stamped. There were quite a few participating locations on our route, but when I checked Pennsylvania and saw the words "Steamtown National Historic Site," I knew I had a winner. A park filled with old-style trains would most definitely be more interesting to the kids than walking around a battlefield. Plus they not only had a stamp for my book, but a Junior Ranger program as well. Sounded like a slam dunk to me!

So I told the Hubs a little about the place and that we were going to play the stop by ear depending on how our return trip was going. Scranton wasn't precisely on the route back home, and would require about an hour detour plus a few hours to explore the site. Adding three or four hours to an already 12 hour trip sounded daunting, but I already had my heart set on stopping... for the kid's sake, of course.

About three years ago we were in the Great Smokey Mountains (for another wedding, go figure) and had the opportunity to go see and RIDE the 'real' Thomas the Tank Engine as he traveled across the country on his "Day Out with Thomas" tour. It was awesome. My oldest was four at the time and in full-blown Thomas heaven. My youngest, though, was only about 6 months old at that time, so now with him just a month away from turning four himself, it seemed only fair to give him a chance at an unforgetable train experience.

The return trip was going quite well (shockingly) and so we veered off course shortly after entering Pennsylvania to head towards Scranton. Having spent some of my childhood living in a town outside of Philly, I recognized the look and feel of an old PA city right away. The site was easy enough to get to and located just on the opposite side of a small downtown district. Pulling in to the lot, the kids faces were nearly smushed against the window glass as they took in the trains littering the rails surrounding the parking lot.

By then it was past lunch time, so we diverted the kids eyes as best we could and walked first over to the adjacent mall for a hurried meal in the food court. (Yes, there's a mall right next to the site, and its even named "The Mall at Steamtown." A Ranger joked they were the only National Parks site with a mall named after them!) Then we diverted my eyes from the mall stores and walked back over to the train yard.

Right out front of the site's ticket counter we were greeted by an enourmous engine which we later found out is nicknamed "Big Boy." The boys were in awe of the massive size of him, and that was only the beginning of the fun.

The kids in front of "Big Boy."

Our first stop was the gift shop to be sure I didn't run out of time to pick up patches and pins to remember our visit. The second was to the Park information desk so we could get the Junior Ranger booklet and see if it would be doable on our short visit (it was). Then we hurried off to the next (and last) train ride of the day. Billed as a 20 miute ride for a low cost of $3 per person over 6 years old, The Scranton Limited ride sounded like a great chance to experience what a real trip was like on an old-timey train.

For me, the grown up, though, I was slightly dissapointed in the fact that A) it wasn't a steam engine pulling the train (it is called Steamtown, after all), and B) the ride was just a quick back and forth on a small section of track contained within the park site's boundries. The Ranger explained that to go off the park's portion of the track meant they had to pay the company that owned the other portion, and that just was not feasible for such a short, cheap ride. Well, I could understand that problem, and the boys didn't seem to care at all that we hardly even went anywhere. The bouncy seats and views of even more dilapidated and antique trains in the back of the yard were enough to make the boys happy, so it was worth the small price to see their smiles. P.S. - Other, longer rides are available for a higher cost if you have time, and also special excursions for things like fall foliage viewing, Halloween rides and the extremely popular Polar Express rides. Don't bother to look at the Polar Express ride for this year though, they're already sold out! If we had more time I would have gladly paid for a longer ride through the countryside!

Train bliss for a nearly-four-year-old.

With all the important business out of the way, we then proceeded to begin our exploration of the various buildings and exhibits around the area. Most of the public portion of Steamtown is contained within an old fasioned roundhouse, one of the few left standing in the country. We even got to see the turntable actually turn when a steam engine puffed into the roundhouse toward the end of our visit and was turned so it could be put to rest in its shed for the night - just like Thomas!

Different sections of the roundhouse had been converted into themed exhibit/museum spaces. I must say the park's designers really knew their audience, becuase nearly everything in the exhibits was hands on. There were buttons to push, levers to pull, wheels to turn, and fun things to look at everywhere we went. Far from being a stuffy museum with lots of boring photos and explanations of trains (though it does have those too if that's what you're interested in), Steamtown encourages kids and adults to naturally be involved in the history and technology of trains by immersing you in them as much as reasonably possible. Pull up a crate and watch a short movie inside a real box car. Lay down on a cot inside a real red caboose. Take a walk through a long mail car and see how you might sort the mail in days of old.

A steamy steams into the roundhouse
for a spin on the turntable.

The boys try their hands, and arms, at a real working hand car. Not easy!

Perhaps the most surprising experience to me, though, was the walk through the original 1907 portion of the old roundhouse. It was dark, it was dirty, it was smokey, it had huge engines looming eerily in the dim light, one of which was still quietly steaming from its recent trip into the shed. Try as I might, I couldn't imagine ever happily working in such a place. Even with the windows and electric lights, there seemed to be no stopping the sence of gloom in that other-worldly place. And amazingly, people still actually do work on the trains in there!

A Percy look-alike inside the 1907 portion of the roundhouse.

My oldest train enthusiast thouroughly enjoyed finding the answers to the Junior Ranger work book all throughout the buildings and was excited to be sworn in (again) as a Junior Park Ranger. Now he has another badge to add to his growing collection, (and I have another stamp in my book!). Though our stop was somewhat short, we had a great time exploring one of the lesser known National Parks and it was reasonable to get all the important sights in to our brief couple of hours. Some extra time would have been welcome so we could have taken a longer train ride and explored the trolley museum at the opposite end of the parking lot (and maybe shopped at the mall?), but with the time we had it was an afternoon well spent. Both boys had a wonderful time and were sad to leave such a neat place.

Working on the Jr. Ranger booklet in
one of the cabooses and learning how
people would live in that little room.

Though it hasn't been in any book on National Parks that I've picked up so far, even the ones listing the best parks for kids, Steamtown is a must stop place for anyone young or old who has ever longed to hear the whistle of a steam engine and the hoarse cry of the conductor as he yells out "All Aboooooaaard!" Make a stop at Steamtown on your east coast to-do list. Say hello to Big Boy and revel in the sights, sounds and smells of America's railroad heyday.

The boys pretend to buy a ticket to ride.
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