RailCamp 2011

By: Mitchell Smithbauer

Sunday: This was actually the second day of RailCamp for me. I had come with my two cousins, Jessica Fleming, a fellow camper, and Janice Bauer, a counselor. Counselors leave a day early so I left with her. That morning and afternoon were rather boring. Waking up for a Denny’s breakfast and moping around waiting for other campers to arrive later in the day. Once there were a few campers, Alex Polimeni took everybody down to some track where yard shuttles run back and forth from Steamtown to the dorms where we stayed. Most days it would be a Nickel Plate Road diesel locomotive pulling the two cars, but on occasion, Steamtown’s operating steam engine would pull the cars. This day was one of them. It’s a Canadian National 2-8-2 in all its glory. One of the campers was Grant Lilly. His dad is president of the Washington D.C. chapter for the NRHS and this group sponsored me to come to RailCamp. I asked about his dad’s job and we started a conversation. We had become friends that first day. After some frisbee and bubbles, it was time for dinner at the DeNaples Center. This was followed by a presentation given by a park ranger about the history of Steamtown and how it impacted the area. Afterwards everybody walked back to the dorms for journal time. There was some free time so most campers spent it playing cards in the common room. 11:00 lights out.

Monday: This was the first official day of RailCamp. At 5:15 the banging of doors was heard all over the dorms and so were the moans and groans of campers. There was a lot to do this day so it was good we had an early start. After breakfast, everybody climbed into the bus and headed off to Wilmington DE. This is where Amtrak has a locomotive repair shop. When the bus arrived, everybody walked to a building for a short briefing and then off to the repair shops. The shops have mostly electric locomotives because of all of the Acela trains running through the area. Here some employees toured us on everything there was to see, from wheel repairs, to “flying an engine”. This is where two huge cranes lift up a locomotive and move it to a different track. The rest was pretty basic with cleaning parts and stuff like that. Once that was all said and done, everybody went back to the building for some pizza and a presentation on safety at railroad crossings. There were also stories some people had to tell about accidents at crossings. After was a bus ride to the Wilmington train station where we rode a train from there to Philadelphia. Here there was another presentation on all of the departments Amtrak has to work with. What was really cool was when everyone got the chance to enter an office building where Amtrak has a control center. Here the railroad controls and maintains the electrical wiring for the whole Northeast Corridor. This is also where Amtrak monitors and controls every train on the corridor. This was the end of the tour so the bus ride back to Scranton was the last thing to do. We stopped on the way back for dinner and then journal time when we got back. 11:00 lights out.

Tuesday: Not as early but still annoying, pounding on doors comes again, along with its moans and yawns. A meeting in the common room starts the day followed by a delicious breakfast. A trip to Steamtown was the next thing to do. Here all of the campers were divided into four groups, A, B, C, and D. Each group was to give a presentation on a piece of equipment in the roundhouse, assigned by Barry Smith, the director of RailCamp. My group was assigned an old Louisville & Nashville post car. While setting up the presentation, a newspaper editor came and was talking to Barry. Then he called me over and the editor asked if he could ask me some questions. He was curious as to how I got interested in trains. I told him about how my family owns and operates a 2 foot-gauge railroad (Bucksgahuda and Western RR) in St. Marys, Pennsylvania.  All of this got published in the Scranton newspaper, so it was pretty cool. The presentation went pretty smoothly. My group talked about the history of the car, how it was used, and why it’s important. The presentations after that were on a steam locomotive, caboose, and boxcar. Before lunch everybody got the chance to ride a hand car, followed by lunch in the back of the restoration shops in Steamtown. The afternoon was one of the best all week. We went to the Lackawanna Anthracite Mine. Here everybody was separated into two groups. One took a 150 foot deep cart ride down into the mine to explore how mining was done and what would happen in different situations. The other went to the museum to really find out how mining impacted the area and why it was so important. My group was first to enter the mine. After this was done, we headed back to the dorms for dinner and journal time. 11:00 lights out.

Wednesday: This morning was as normal as every other. “Pound Pound Pound” on the doors and the morning meeting. After breakfast, the campers walked to the Steamtown theatre where we got an overview of maintance of trains. Then half of the group went to the building where we were going to build silhouettes of steam locomotives. A silhouette is a carving of a steam locomotive made out of two pieces of steel. One’s the base, the other the actual locomotive. The whole thing was set up in stations, and while the people running the stations were getting ready, Barry called me over. There was a man dressed in a suit and asked if I could talk to him. We went in front of the building and there was another man setting up a camera. This was WBRE news station walking around taking video of the shops. Just like the newspaper guy, he asked me how I got into trains and what I expected to learn. I also told him about my family railroad. After that it was time to make the silhouettes. Afterwards was lunch and then a relaxing afternoon in the Steamtown theatre where a few Amtrak employees talked to us about their jobs and the responsibilities that went with it. This was followed by a forty-five minute video on the history of Amtrak and why it’s important. Mike Muldowney, a counselor, finished off the program with a slideshow on steam generation in steam locomotives and how it works once water is turned into steam. That was the end and we all walked back to the dorm for dinner and journal time. A trip to the Steamtown Mall finished off the day. 11:00 wasn’t lights out tonight. Barry let us all stay up later to see Railcamp on the 11:00 news. So 11:30 lights out.

Thursday: Once again, morning noises fill the building. After breakfast, the RailCamp crew headed down to Steamtown for a tour of their repair and restoration shops. The group was cut in half. Half went to the repair shops; the other went to the trolley museum and rode a trolley. The half that went to the shops was divided into four groups. My group was first to go under the Canadian National 3254 while it was firing. Here we learned what to do during a 31 day inspection and how to fix whatever needed fixed. Next was a wheel repair section. This is where wheels are repaired and replaced. We were shown the “ring of fire”. This is where propane torch flames circle the tire of a wheel, and the wheel heats up so the tire can be fixed or replaced. Also there was a machine where the outer edge of a wheel is scrapped down so it’s flat. This is done because when a brake shoe is applied, it applies to the center of the wheel, not the whole thing. The wheel then looks like a U because the center is worn down. Another machine was used to fit a tire to its axle by scraping the inside of the tire until it is big enough. The next station was a full boiler restoration. We were able to climb into the boiler and listen to an employee explain what goes on in restoring the inside and outside of a boiler. The final station was replacing a brake shoe on a passenger car. After lunch was a visit to the trolley museum. Here there was a full size trolley car on display that was partially cut open to show how it would work. Also there were some old artifacts that trolleys would have either on them or in stations. All of this and a little G-scale setup with a trolley going around a loop on the ceiling. The ride was next which took us on a 10 mile round trip. This was the end of the day so we walked back to the dorms for dinner and journal time. 11:00 lights out.

Friday: For the last time, “knock knock knock” is heard and the campers gather for breakfast. Afterwards, Steamtown was the next stop where we gathered in the theatre for a brief overview of the days activities. All of the campers were then divided in half. Half went to a hi-railer for a demonstration on how it works and took a ride in it and than were able to run a live steam locomotive. The other half, my group, went to the yards to learn hand signals and how to couple and uncouple cars to a locomotive. We were able to run the Nickel Plate Road 514 down a section of track. This was the engine that we used to couple the cars. Lunch was next and then back to where we were for the high-railer demonstration. We all got to put the rail wheels either up or down, but we weren’t able to take a ride because the first group was having problems with it; it wouldn’t stay on the track. Then best for last, we got to run the mini live steam locomotive. After about 10 people running it, the whistle got a little annoying, but surprisingly, Barry was able to sleep through all of this. The disappointing news that it was time to walk back to the dorms which made everybody upset. So eventually we all dragged ourselves back for dinner and the award presentation afterwards. Through all of this I could see lots of sad faces. It had been such a fun week, it seemed like two hours. What I’m going to miss the most are the people I met. It was so nice to be able to talk about trains with people who don’t go “what?”. I would encourage anybody who thinks about going to RailCamp, to go. It’s the best thing to do for the love of trains. And so ended 2011 RailCamp.