The Train to Tobyhanna

14 Aug

Scranton, PA recently made it to an infamous Forbes list of Top Ten Fastest Dying Cities in America! One of many cities that failed to make the transition from a heavily industrialised past, Scranton is the sixth most populous city in Pennsylvania and the oldest of ten in the Forbes list. Till it suffered this recent indignity, it was best known as the setting for the American version of the hit TV series, ‘The Office‘. As I wandered through the local Mall in search of breakfast that morning, I chanced upon a gathering of fans at a promotional event for that very show!

Scranton is also known for ‘Steamtown‘ – a National Historic Site spread across 62 acres – on land once owned by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W). It attracts its very own following of fans – rail enthusiasts!

Without doubt, the centrepiece of this town is the erstwhile station building of the DL&W – a beautiful neo-classical structure commonly regarded as one of the most impressive rail terminals in the eastern Unites States.

Completing a century this year, the building has been repurposed as a heritage hotel today – 4 stars no less – run by the Radisson group! If there was ever a chain hotel I would want to stay in, it is this!

The Steamtown National Historic Site is easily the biggest attraction of the town and draws close to 100,000 visitors each year! Amongst a plethora of locomotives, carriages and wagons on display, the star exhibit at Steamtown is ‘Big Boy‘ #4012 – one of eight survivors of a batch of 25 locomotives built for the Union Pacific Railroad between ’41 and ’44 – the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever to be operated!

An apt picture caption would go something like – ‘the middle aged man & his big boy’!!

It would be all to easy for me to go into raptures about the museum, its exhibits and the accompanying yards and workshops. Fact is, Steamtown is so big and has so much to offer that a simple blog entry would hardly do it justice. Besides we didn’t even end up covering all of it! Another trip is planned in the fall for exactly that reason. But moving on, and before I lose the bulk of my audience – read non rail fans! – I will, instead, describe a thoroughly enjoyable journey – on a steam train – that we all undertook from Scranton!

The town of Scranton is undulating for the most part, situated in the Lackawanna River Valley and flanked by the Pocono mountain range of the Northeast Appalachians. The rail route out of Scranton climbs steeply for the first few miles till the Pocono Plateau is reached. All signs of habitat are left far behind and within minutes one is traversing through the lush Pennsylvania countryside.

The excursion trains run only in season but the line is in use year round by revenue earning freight. A feeder railroad aptly named ‘Delaware-Lackawanna‘ operates the line today – hauling grain for the much larger Canadian Pacific Railway. Steamtown leases the track from them during its months of operation. Interestingly enough, the steam locomotive in charge of our excursion train also owed its lineage to Canada!

#3254 is a ‘Mikado‘ class steam locomotive homing to the Canadian National Railway and dating back to 1917. For a 91 year old, she was in pretty good nick and effortlessly commandeered our train over the steep Pocono inclines. She pulled a set of six vintage carriages – some from the DL&W and others from the Central of New Jersey (CNJ) Railroad – all of which offered comforts that one would be hard pressed to find on American trains today! Bi-directional reclining seats, leather upholstery and the best part of it all – open windows!!

The 4 hour long 50 mile roundtrip included 2 stops – the first at Gouldsboro and the second and last at Tobyhanna – a little town best known for its US Army logistics facility. At Gouldsboro station, a local art exhibition was on display on one side of the building, while along it, town folk had gathered in large numbers to greet the passengers – and later on, to wave us goodbye! The more enterprising amongst them had set up food stalls and curio stands and I did my bit to help the local economy by walking away with some delicious home made banana bread!

The halt was brief but fruitful for both passengers and locals alike. Passengers got the chance to stretch their legs, enjoy the outdoors and of course snack on a bite while the friendly locals benefited from a little business! It was an ideal example of local communities sharing in and benefiting from the railway that passed through their town and in doing so, enriching the tourist experience. I wished that similar experiments would see the light of day on mountain railways in India.

At both stops, the century old station buildings had been beautifully restored and if you ignored the passing traffic for just a moment, you could easily be transported into a different era – a steam locomotive hissing away, vintage carriages behind it and a charming old station for company.

The station porch provided a perfect setting for lunch but there was enough to do inside as well. The station masters office and waiting room had been transformed into a model train room, photo gallery and souvenir shop and once again, locals manned the entire set up – interacting with the visitors, answering queries, sharing trivia and making a few bucks while at it! My take away – a lovely gray tee shirt depicting the steam train and Tobyhanna station!

On the ride back, I swapped sides and watched the changing landscape from my very own open window – lakes, reservoirs, marshlands, forests, rivulets and valleys – all this while soaking in that unmistakable sensory experience of old world travel.

Back at Steamtown at a little past 3 in the afternoon, we did a whirlwind tour of the indoor museum. Meanwhile, the old lady was being turned and placed inside the locomotive depot – where she would drop her fire for the night. As the shop technicians attended to her, we had the rare opportunity to observe it all from a thoughtfully constructed catwalk that ran the perimeter of the engine house. A fitting end to our day out!

Scranton may have made it to Forbes shit list for now but if the new season of ‘The Office’ can’t salvage some of its lost glory, I certainly hope Steamtown will!

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