BY DAVID SINGLETON
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will derail Steamtown National Historic Site’s traditional Railfest celebration for a second straight year, but that doesn’t mean park visitors have nothing to look forward to in the months ahead.
“We are trying to come up with other events that we can do this summer, just little things that we can do that don’t draw big crowds,” Superintendent Cherie Shepherd said.
Overall, Steamtown is in much the same posture it was when the historic site reopened July 8 after Lackawanna County finally emerged from the state-ordered COVID-19 shutdown, she said.
The park’s outdoor spaces — the turntable, the roundhouse and the yard — are all accessible to the public with social distancing, with masks required if distancing can’t be maintained. However, the indoor exhibits remain off-limits, at least for now.
“We are getting our guidance from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and more specifically the park service on how we can open up,” Shepherd said. “A lot of this is indoors and not the best thing right now.”
Something that could happen sooner than later is the long-awaited rollout of the restored Big Boy steam locomotive.
Steamtown removed the Union Pacific Railroad No. 4012 engine from public display in the fall of 2019, for a thorough cosmetic restoration and painting. The colossal locomotive, one of just eight still in existence, is considered one of the historic site’s must-see attractions.
The makeover, which included asbestos removal, took longer than anticipated but is nearing completion, Shepherd said.
“We are trying to make it as perfect as we can get it,” she said.
Steamtown has no specific target date for getting the Big Boy back on display, though Shepherd said she hopes it is “pretty soon.”
“I’d like it out here by early summer when it starts getting busier again,” she said.
Park officials have started thinking about what it will take to resume train rides, including the short “Scranton Limited” runs within the Steamtown yards, although there is also no timetable for that, Shepherd said.
The park is examining ways to socially distance passengers, as well as how to clean and sanitize the historic equipment, she said. There is also the issue of getting the crews, which are made up mostly of volunteers, up to date on their required training.
“There is a lot to get in line,” she said. In October, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the last mainline revenue steam rail operations in the United States, Steamtown featured a new locomotive on its turntable each week during the month.
Shepherd said that is one of the models the park is looking at as it tries to find ways to engage the public until it can return to full operation. The keys are safe and outdoors, she said.
One of the dates the historic site is aiming for is May 8, which is National Train Day. The day commemorates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
“It’s not going to be to the level of when we are operating, but we still want to find things that we can celebrate,” Shepherd said. “That’s what we’re working on.”
Curt Camoni, executive director of the Lackawanna County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Steamtown has not been alone in grappling with the pandemic.
Capitalizing on the Lackawanna River’s recognition as Pennsylvania River of the Year, the area probably had its best year ever in terms of adventure tourism in 2020, he said, but it was difficult for more traditional attractions.
“We are trending in the right direction, and I’m optimistic,” Camoni said. “I think we’ll bounce and we’ll be stronger for it.”