Departing Boss: Steamtown Positioned For Future

September 4, 2018

SCRANTON — When Debbie Conway arrived as superintendent of Steamtown National Historic Site in mid-2014, the park hadn’t had an operational steam locomotive in close to two years. That changed when the Boston Locomotive Works 26 engine finally went back into service in April 2016 after a lengthy restoration. As she prepares to leave later this month to become deputy regional director for National Park Service’s Northeast Region, Conway listed the return of “live steam” to Steamtown — part of a larger strategy to make certain it remains a consistent part of the park experience — as her top accomplishment during her four years as superintendent. “We have a plan in place to try to make sure Steamtown isn’t steamless in the future,” Conway, 52, said. “We have worked really hard to be strategic in our thinking about what equipment we need to repair and what our priorities are so we don’t get ourselves in that position again.” For Conway and her staff at the park, that meant re-evaluating how Steamtown approached its planning, particularly in the long term, and how it developed its requests for funding. For example, despite the historic site’s lack of a working steam locomotive at the time, rebuilding the park’s steam program was not front and center with respect to its project funding requests when she arrived in 2014, Conway said. “We really didn’t have any projects for steam engines and that floored me,” she said. With the strategic planning she initiated taking place internally, it’s not something park visitors would have noticed, but it will “pay huge dividends in the future as we are able to have better planned-out projects and get more funding from outside our base budget,” she said. “The point is there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work we’ve done that isn’t going to be forward-facing but is really going to help set the park up to compete for funding better and maintain our equipment better,” she said. Conway said Steamtown needs to have a minimum of three operating steam locomotives, and that is part of the long-range strategy for the park. It would allow the site to have two engines to operate its yard shuttles and excursions, while the third is undergoing repairs or maintenance. With the Baldwin 26 serving as “the anchor of our program now,” work continues to restore the Boston & Maine Railroad 3713 locomotive to operating condition. Steamtown is waiting for various components of the locomotive that are undergoing restoration at shops outside the park to be returned. “That one is sort of like putting Humpty Dumpty back together,” Conway said, adding it will be at least two years and “probably more like four years” before the B&M 3713 is ready for service. In the meantime, Steamtown has started to develop the funding request for the restoration of a third steam engine — probably Canadian National 3377 — but is likely still several years away from getting any funding to even start that project, Conway said. “If we have three, we can consistently keep things moving,” she said. “One of the challenges is the Baldwin. While it’s a great little engine, it’s not powerful enough to go on the mainline, so ideally it would be great if we had four, but we could make it work with three.” Conway foresees funding as a continuing challenge for Steamtown. The site’s annual operating budget of about $5.5 million is solid for a medium-sized park and would be a good budget for a small scenic railroad, but it is tight for an operation like Steamtown that combines both aspects, she said. The superintendent last year formalized a partnership with an official Steamtown “friends group,” the Iron Horse Society, to support operations at the park. The nonprofit society will be able to solicit donations and apply for grants for projects that park officials themselves cannot, Conway said. Attendance at the park, which dropped sharply after the park became steamless in 2012, has stabilized and is now pushing 100,000 visitors annually, Conway said. Last October, with the blessing of park service officials in Washington, she eliminated the site’s admission fee, and she anticipates the final attendance numbers for 2018 will show a gain over 2017. There are other things Conway had hoped to do that haven’t come to fruition — or at least not yet. Steamtown has worked with the Lackawanna Heritage Valley on a grant for a connector bridge that would link the historic site to Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, she said. “That’s a key piece and when that happens, that will kind of help us make the loop with the trail,” she said. “There are some great connections being made and not seeing those through to the end is definitely kind of sad.” Conway won’t be leaving Steamtown completely behind when she begins her new job Oct. 1. As regional deputy director of Northeast Region’s southern tier, she will oversee dozens of National Park Service sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Steamtown is one of those. Although she won’t have a role in naming an interim superintendent — something she said should happen in the next couple of weeks — she will select the historic site’s next permanent superintendent. Conway said she will be looking for a successor with good team- and partnership-building skills. Railroading knowledge would be a plus, she said. “I am sad to leave here,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to go after four years. I was it expecting it to be a little longer, but this is a great opportunity for me, career-wise, and as far as timing, there is never a perfect time. “But I feel like we have things in a pretty good spot for the next person.” Contact the writer: dsingleton@timesshamrock.com 570-348-9132