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Derail--an apt comment about Steamtown and its future. May 26, 2009 | by Ivan S. Abrams
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Derail--an apt comment about Steamtown and its future. May 26, 2009

Photograph (C) copyright 2009 Ivan Safyan Abrams. All rights reserved.


There is much irony about this museum exhibit, and about Steamtown. The exhibit is a steam locomotive nicknamed the "Big Boy" by the builder--American Locomotive, or ALCO, of Schenectady, NY (now defunct, like many former American industrial giants)--and operated by the Union Pacific railroad (very much alive, and prosperous). It was donated to the original Steamtown, located at the time in Bellows Falls, Vermont, many decades ago. When Steamtown relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, this locomotive came, too.


The engine was by some measures both the largest and most powerful of all steam locomotives ever built. The Union Pacific railroad favored huge steam locomotives, and had 25 of these Big Boys on its roster in the 1940s and 1950s. They operated primarily in Wyoming and Utah, pulling freight trains.


Union Pacific once took such pride in its motive power, and in its history, that it commissioned a movie about the "Big Boys", and later, donated a number of them to museums. The intent was that the preserved locomotives would commemorate and honor an historic time while reflecting well upon the Union Pacific Railroad.


Now, the condition of this exhibit is simply atrocious. It's dirty and rusty, and shows very little sign of any recent care or preservation attempts. Certainly there have been some efforts made in the past to preserve the locomotive, or it would have rusted away years ago. An artifact this large requires expensive and intensive care if it's not going to disintegrate. However, the limited amount of work that was done with to this Big Boy is only delaying the inevitable decline. It's not preserving it for future generations, and it's certainly not showing respect for its history or unique and irreplaceable status.


In recent years, the Union Pacific filed absurd and costly lawsuits against many toy and model train manufacturers whom the railroad accused of misusing the trademarks and service marks of the railroad; most of the defendants were small, family-owned businesses. The enormous and powerful railroad corporation actually had its law department and hired-gun lawyers (the $500/hour variety) spending the shareholders' money to chase after firms that built little model trains that were painted in the colors of the Union Pacific--so that the railroad would not be presented to the public in a false light! Common sense finally prevailed when one model manufacturer refused to be extorted, and fought back in court. Soon, a settlement was reached, and hobbyists can again enjoy their miniature Union Pacific trains.


But it's difficult not to wonder why the Union Pacific, so enamored of the courts, is content to have its reputation sullied by this sad hulk of a rotting locomotive that's on display in a major northeast tourist venue, fully lettered with "Union Pacific" logos and bearing a Union Pacific shield on its front. How many thousands of tourists view this deplorable display and go away believing that the Union Pacific has itself deteriorated, or ceased to exist? Probably more people see this locomotive each summer than there are model railroaders who might own a tiny model of a Union Pacific engine.


Has Steamtown been sued by the Union Pacific for defaming the history and reputation of the railroad? Of course not--as a US government facility it wouldn't be the easy target that were presented by the model manufacturers. But more significantly, has Union Pacific made any efforts to assist Steamtown, and the National Park Service, to maintain this and other exhibits that depict the history and, indeed, the viability of railroading? I either saw no evidence nor am I aware of such support.


Railroading in the United States is--or was until the economy collapsed--a healthy and vibrant industry that carries far more freight than it ever did in the past. Even passenger railroading is returning to viability, as US highways continue to deteriorate and reach capacity. But a visitor to Steamtown wouldn't think that railroads are anything but dead.


The Union Pacific and other major railroads might argue that it would be a poor use of money to contribute to a museum, since the cargo that the railways carry has no alternative routing--coal and containers aren't really suited for long-haul truck transportation. Why should the railroads advertise, or publicize themselves? But the the Union Pacific itself maintains a fine museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa (across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska). Further, the Union Pacific maintain two enormous steam locomotives that it occasionally runs for railway fans and important shipper groups. It does these things because at least part of its management values the company's history. But as this basket case of a "Big Boy" demonstrates, consistency isn't the hallmark of the Union Pacific, at least so far as its public relations efforts go.


Perhaps it's unfair to single out the Union Pacific when searching for reasons why Steamtown is so disappointing. There are many explanations, and they're intertwined. The site has always been underfunded, and apparently lacks a strategic plan. The reality of Steamtown is that it's more of a cemetery than a celebration, and unless it receives assistance from somewhere, it and exhibits like this "Big Boy" are destined to become a pile of rusty scrap iron in the very near future.

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Taken on May 26, 2009