Archives Keep Steam Locomotives Chugging

December 14, 2016Laura Starr (History Associates)Artifact

Riding on a steam locomotive brings to life the golden era of train travel in America. The iconic “chuff chuff” engine sounds, the blast of the train whistle, and the rock of the train car as the scenery passes by can transport you to a time when traveling from coast to coast was a days-long adventure, not an hours-long flight.

At Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, you can view and tour a variety of historic freight and passenger cars, watch a working train turntable, and yes, even take a ride on a steam locomotive.

You can’t miss the iconic trains at Steamtown National Historic Site, but what visitors may not realize is that the park is also a steward of a crucial archival collection from the Nathan Manufacturing Company.

Founded in 1862, Nathan was a major manufacturer of steam locomotive equipment including water columns, gauges, lubricators, whistles, and valves. These original company records help modern day preservation specialists understand the intricacies of complex pieces of equipment in order to keep living history alive and steaming.

Detailed image of a locomotive injector part from a Nathan Manufacturing Company catalog at Steamtown National Historic Site

Detailed image of a locomotive injector part from a Nathan Manufacturing Company catalog

Steamtown National Historic Site, NPS

The Nathan Manufacturing archives provide a window into how the company operated, produced parts, and tested equipment. In addition to hundreds of thousands of documents, the collection has tens of thousands of associated three-dimensional objects, such as dies, castings and various products.

Starting in 2012, archivists from History Associates began organizing these records and helped catalog more than 2,500 large-format drawings in the archives database. Steamtown National Historic Site volunteers scanned the drawings and linked them with the database records, so now researchers can easily search for and view them.

When archives are made available, it’s often surprising who uses them, to what purpose, and what new discoveries are made. The appeal of the Nathan collection has exceeded the expectations of Steamtown Historian Pat McKnight. “We have had inquiries from all over the country about the collection. We even had a protracted exchange with a railroad in Australia.”

Large format drawing of a Nathan locomotive injector from Steamtown National Historic Site

Large format drawing of a Nathan locomotive injector

Steamtown National Historic Site, NPS

Who knew that a treasure trove of 19th and 20th century mechanical drawings in Scranton, Pennsylvania could have world-wide appeal?

Thanks to the efforts of the Steamtown National Historic Site employees and volunteers, NPS Museum Management Program staff, and History Associates archivists, more of these unique archives are being made accessible every day for train enthusiasts, researchers, railroad companies, and the general public alike.

Until you can schedule a ride on a locomotive at Steamtown, you can visit the NPS Web Catalog to see the inside of a 1904 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train car, learn the lantern hand signals used by railroad workers, or discover early 20th train tour options – all from the comfort of your own couch and computer!

Discover for yourself what artifacts and objects are in the National Park Service’s museum collections! Remember: every one, every place, and every thing has a story. So get out there and find them, and share what you learn with us with the hashtag #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque.


Laura Starr is a senior archivist at History Associates and has worked on many NPS collections projects, in addition to providing archival services to a number of other federal agencies, private companies, academic institutions, and world-class cultural heritage institutions. History Associates is a leading historical services firm that is honored to have helped NPS survey, organize, and catalog archival materials at more than more than 75 parks since 2001. Over the course of this partnership, we witnessed first-hand how Park Service collections illustrate our country’s rich cultural legacy and have shared in the joy that comes from discovering this uniquely American heritage.

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