Steamtown and Jim Thorpe

I am pretty sure Scranton is not a place that features highly on most people’s Travel Bucket Lists.  Somehow, however, this Summer I ended up going to Scranton for the third time within three years.  The recent visit was inspired by my in-laws, visiting from the UK, since my Father-in-Law is a lifelong, massive railway enthusiast and he very much wanted to visit Scranton.  This is because Scranton is home to Steamtown, a National Park site dedicated to the history of railways.

On our previous visits, we have wandered the adjacent yard and nosed around the freight cars and locomotives parked there.  This, however, was our first visit to the actual National Historic Site museum. The museum buildings circle the periphery of a working turntable and roundhouse.  It was to the turntable that we wandered first.  There was a locomotive that the kids and their grandfather were able to climb aboard complete with a rope to make the whistle blow.  We had tickets for a train excursion so, after an impatient wait in the blazing sun, we clambered aboard some carriages from the 1920s and headed off on a short jaunt pulled along by a steam locomotive.  As it had only been a short while since our last steam train journey, the older kids were not remotely enthused or engaged: the 10 year old decided to nap while the 13 year old had his nose stuck in a book for the entire journey.  I have to admit with struggling to engage myself.  Industrial and infrastructure heritage just is not my thing so, while I could recognise that the young man acting as tour kid was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of this particular railroad and railways in general, I really did not absorb any information or at least none that stuck for more than a short while.  The route took us out to a gorge which was the location of an event that was really the beginning of the end of this railroad company as a commercial venture.  A storm had damaged the line at that spot and, already struggling due to the region’s failing economy, the rail company collapsed.

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By the time we hopped off the train and toured a section of the roundhouse with several locomotives on display, three of the kids had had enough and went to go and play outside the museum under the supervision of their grandmother, who readily volunteered for the job.  To be honest, the only reason the 10 year old stayed with the remaining three adults was because of the air conditioning though I think he actually quite enjoyed the museum.

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Much of the museum’s contents were the result of a seafood millionaire collector and was originally housed in New England. For various reasons, the collection was relocated to Scranton in the 1980s and eventually won National Park status.  Nevertheless, the place struggles financially.  I guess there are not a high enough proportion of railroad enthusiasts in the country who are intent on visiting Scranton to make it economically viable.

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Regardless of its woes, however, we found the museum to be organised and well considered.  I actually quite enjoyed wandering through historic carriages because they represented an aspect of social history.  It was interesting to see how cramped the sleeping conditions were within a Pullman carriage, for instance, but the lounge area and dining area on the same carriage were pretty spacious.  My favourite, however, was a mail car.  I loved the rich patina of the wood and all the little shelves.  It appealed to my love of organising things.  I could actually imagine myself rattling along the tracks while placing the mail into the appropriate pigeon holes.

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The museum had clearly figured out that it needed to appeal to people like me who were into social history more than industrial history as one whole area was dedicated to displays about people of the railroad.  As well as there being a vintage ticket booth and waiting room – where my 10 year old did an outstanding method acting job of “imagining” he was sick and tired of waiting – there were displays revolving around different types of people.  We could, therefore, learn about the role and history of such folks as conductors, telegraph operators, hobos and the little kids who sold newspapers, snacks and drinks to passengers.

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My Father-in-Law thought that Steamtown was absolutely terrific so clearly it is the perfect place for railway enthusiasts to visit.  I, therefore, highly recommend it to people who fall into that category as even I could recognise it was a great collection.  The rest of us, however, were less enthused and had to really work hard to find an engaging angle.  While I saw plenty of other kids who were loving the whole experience, including a fair few who were dressed up like tiny railroad engineers, my boys were totally not digging the the place at all.  They were relieved when it was time to move on to other things.

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After a quick snack and a run around the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park – a place we always enjoy visiting – we visited Jim Thorpe.  Our first stop was at the Jim Thorpe Monument.  Jim Thorpe is celebrated as the first Native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.  While the medals he won were for pentathlon and decathlon, Thorpe was an accomplished athlete in several sports, including American Football, baseball and basketball.  The memorial statues at the site represent Thorpe in two of his fields of sporting success: football and athletics.  Apparently the grave monument includes soil from Oklahoma, Thorpe’s home state, and from the site of the stadium in Stockholm where he won his Olympic golds in 1912.  It is also inscribed with the words of Gustav V proclaiming Thorpe to be “the greatest athlete in the world” which actually does not seem ridiculously superlative given Thorpe’s multitude of achievements.

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The town of Jim Thorpe was one we had often driven through since emigrating to Pennsylvania but had never wandered around in.  We, therefore, decided to get out and have a stroll in the late afternoon sunshine.  Jim Thorpe actually never sat foot in the town that bears his name.  The story of how it came to be named for the athlete is actually quite a sad and somewhat sordid one.  Upon his death in 1953, his widow (his third wife) made off with his remains, apparently without the knowledge or consent of any of his children, and made her way to Pennsylvania where she had struck a deal with a town regarding memorialising her husband.  Thus the town purchased the body and Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe in his honour.  Thorpe’s children pressed various courts to order the repatriation and reinterrment of their father’s remains to Oklahoma, specifically on Native American land, but all attempts failed and so they continue to remain in a small town in the Poconos.  Told you it was sad and sordid.

The town itself is rather quaint and picturesque, a cluster of streets nestled in a mountain valley, lined with interesting buildings.  Mauch Chunk was founded, as with most places in the area, because of the mining industry and it was an important hub for the railways transporting coal from the Poconos to the region’s cities and across the nation.  As such, the town’s prosperity very much follows the familiar curve of boom and decline.  It’s the variety of 19th Century architecture there, however, that probably gives it a bit more of a boost than most places in the vicinity because it makes it visually appealing and that attracts tourists and tourism businesses.

 

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We focused our stroll on the street named Broadway, knowing the kids were unlikely to tolerate a longer meander than that.  The architecture of the place really is pretty fascinating with, for example, buildings that would not look out of place in New Orleans’ French Quarter given their ornate wrought iron balconies sitting on the same street as buildings with European style turrets.  I particularly liked the red stone library and the old fire station with its arched doors and bay window.  We browsed in the windows of a few shops and even made a purchase in one, a shop that sold nothing but varieties of jerky including ones as exotic as mako shark.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings settled on a sample pack of interesting beef jerkys.

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Ultimately we did not spend much time in Jim Thorpe but I think we will definitely stop off there again and have a more extensive wander and perhaps visit the museums and historic buildings next time.  I think we will steer clear of the railway for a while though.  I think my kids are a bit sick of trains now.

Celebrating Double Digits in the Poconos

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My second oldest son turned ten this weekend.  Double digits is a really big deal so we decided to make a big deal out of it.  Since his birthday fell on a weekend, we decided to whisk the kids off for an overnight stay in a hotel.  We got a cheap – double digits indeed – room in a hotel just outside Scranton that had a swimming pool and breakfast included.

After a morning of card and gift opening, we piled into the car and headed off into the Poconos.  Saturday was a grey day of drizzle and chill winds so we focused on indoor activities.  First up was Country Junction, the general store we seem compelled to visit every time we are in the area.  It is a bizarre and entirely bonkers place and I highly recommend that you stop by should you ever be in the area.  The kids always have a blast wandering around and looking at all the weird and wonderful items of decor, popping in to watch a bit of a movie in the cinema room, pressing all the interactive buttons, collecting eggs for a treat at the end, and visiting the animals in the pet shop area – all by following the yellow brick road.  An indication of the randomness of Country Junction is the contents of my shopping trolley: I bought two non-stick loaf tins, four pots of cheap pick’n’mix and a squeaky rubber pig.  More indoor fun was had when we reached the hotel as the boys jumped and splashed around in the pool until they had built up an appetite for dinner.  There was a restaurant next door to the hotel so we did not even have to get back in the car to go out for the birthday meal.  We were all so stuffed by our main courses and salad bar visits that we did not even make it to dessert.

Sunday was thankfully much brighter and warmer so we were able to take the boys for some outdoor excursions.  First up was the outdoor section of the Steamtown  rail museum in Scranton, which can be accessed via the Mall.  This is a collection – gathered by one man in the 1950s I believe – of steam locomotives, freight and passenger cars.  Mr Pict and I had visited there in April 2014 as part of a day photographing dilapidated and decayed sites but this was the boys’ first time there.  They moaned that they were not allowed to clamber onto every train and that they were not allowed to wander into the carriages but they had fun nevertheless.  They climbed onto trains, scrambled over piles of gravel, got grubby picking up lumps of coal, and raced each other while balancing on railway lines.

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From industry to nature, our concluding excursion was to the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park.  Mr Pict and I first went there alone but then took the kids there on Father’s Day in 2014 and it is fast becoming a favourite spot.  The theory is that this unique geological landscape was formed in the valley by successive freezing and thawing processes that cracked the rock and turned it into large boulders.  My kids just love leaping from rock to rock and seeing how quickly they can get from the car park end of the site to the other end, quite a decent distance.  I meanwhile do not feel so confident on my feet.  The instability triggers the wobbliness I normally get from my fear of heights and I am frankly not as swift and nimble as my kids either.  I, therefore, chose to only wander so far out into the field and then find a nice flat rock to sit on while watching my kids becoming brightly coloured dots on the horizon line.

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Our weekend away was full of relaxed fun and worked well as a celebration of being ten years old.