November 14, 2021: The Electric City
After a wild day watching a football game at Penn State, my friend Carles and I were looking for somewhere to go on the way back to New York City. The city of Scranton is about halfway back.
Scranton is known today for two main things: it is the hometown of Joe Biden, the current president of the United States and it is the home of The Office, a popular TV series. However, the city also has a long history of industry and coal mining. It is nicknamed the Electric City due to its former network of electric powered street cars.
The drive from State College to Scranton took 2 hours and we entered the town along the President Biden Expressway. We then drove to the small house where Biden lived for the first 10 years of his life. A sign outside says “From this house to the White House”.
Next, we headed into the historic downtown. While today, downtown Scranton looks a little less than electric, the buildings are all of superb quality, pointing to a brighter past. Scranton even has its own daily newspaper!
In the center of town is the Pennsylvania Paper & Supply Company. The company is the real-life inspiration for The Office and its tower is the first shot of the intro.
The Pennsylvania Paper & Supply Company has a lobby where you can take pictures with a Dunder Mifflin sign (btw the building is on Mifflin Street), but it was closed on weekends.
With nothing open in downtown at the moment, Carles and I headed to the western outskirts of town to visit the Lackawanna Coal Mine. This former anthracite coal mine is now owned by the county and is open to public tours. The visitor center opens at 10 and the first tour begins once enough people show up, but it will start no later than 11. With those weird directions, Carles and I paid for the tour and waited. At 10:35, they announced that the tour would begin.
We walked over to a gigantic ground-based cable car that would take us down to the mine. After getting locked and strapped in, the car slowly moved down the track and into the earth. The track was very steep and we quickly dropped 30 stories underground. Once safely in the mine, we began the guided tour, led by a younger lady with lots of jokes. In addition to running coal mine tours, she also works as a monster in a haunted houses.
While laden with cheesy jokes, our tour guide did an excellent job. Scranton, and most of eastern Pennsylvania, is full of coal. Specifically, anthracite coal, a harder and cleaner burning type of coal that was prized by certain consumers.
Coal mining was a terrible job and was mostly done by European immigrants who did not know they were being exploited and abused by the coal mining companies. The job conditions were horrendous and many miners either died or had permanent health issues. Additionally, many children were employed by the mine. The horrible working conditions led to the modern-day labor movements and the creations of unions. Children as young as 6 worked in the mines.
One of the most impressive parts of the cave was the creation of it. It is a miracle that the caves did not collapse in. Interestingly, many the families on the tour were descendants of coal miners.
After the tour, we returned to the mainland and got lunch at Scranton´s famous Cooper´s Seafood House. The restaurant is famous because of The Office, but it actually has been a Scranton landmark since 1948. Scranton isn´t the first place where you would think of seafood, so perhaps it was the lack of competition that made this place successful.
Cooper´s is a humongous restaurant and goes all out on the theming. Every wall is covered in something: old pictures of Scranton, painting of old sailors, Beach Boys memorabilia, a wall of Pez dispensers. You name it, it is probably somewhere in this restaurant. One room even had a 10-meter-long whale.
The food was expensive but reasonably priced given it is a seafood restaurant. The food was also delicious. I would whole-heartedly recommend coming to Coopers for a silly and delicious lunch.
For the afternoon, Carles and I visited Steamtown National Historic Site. This is a museum run by the National Park Service and preserves the strong locomotive history in Scranton.
So, you might be wondering where did all the anthracite coal would go after it was removed from the ground by the miners? One answer is in into locomotives! The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad (DL&W) connected the coal mines in Scranton with Hoboken, New Jersey and the major coal market of New York City. From New York City, ships could transport Lackawanna coal all over the world! Pennsylvania dairy was also transported to New York by the railroad so customers in New York City could receive milk that came from the cow that day.
Additionally, the DL&W railroad was used for passenger travel. Trains using the cleaner burning anthracite coal blew out less smoke which meant less soot would fall on the passengers during the ride. Passengers from New York City could ride the DL&W to the Pocono Mountains, a popular vacation destination in southeast Pennsylvania.
The DL&W had a successful run from its incorporation in 1853 all the way up until the 1940´s. By that point, a number of factors including a boon in demand for oil and natural gas instead of coal, the creation of the Interstate Highway System and Hurricane Diane. The final blow was the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959, where workers illegally digging under the Susquehanna River and unexpectedly unleashed its fury, flooding all the mines.
Most of the northeastern railroad companies went bankrupt around this same time. This prompted the US Federal government to buy them all out and merge them into a single entity called Amtrak.
The Steamtown museum contains the former roundhouse train storage facility of the DL&W railroad and contains many steam locomotives from that era. There are also exhibits telling the history of Scranton and the steam locomotive. All in all, the museum was very impressive.
With that, it was time to head back to New York City to return the rental car.
I was pleasantly surprised by Scranton. Yes, the city was devastated by the economic forces of the last 50 years, but there is still enough going on to make it a worthy place to spend a day. With more time, I would have loved to explore some of the city parks and go to some more of The Office sites including Poor Richard´s pub.