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Attendance Shortfalls at Steamtown National Historic Site Prompt Calls for Privatization


Steam engine and two passenger cars at Steamtown National Historic Site, August 2005. Background buildings are (left to right) locomotive repair shops, 1902/1937 roundhouse section, and museum.
Photo by Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia.

An article about Steamtown National Historic Site in today’s [Scranton, PA] Times-Tribune caught my eye this morning. I’ve known for a long time that the famous railroad museum/heritage park is troubled, but the article detailed problems a lot more serious than I had been aware.

Chronic budget shortfalls have prevented the park from performing adequate maintenance and making improvements badly needed to bring attractions and services to the level of visitor expectations. Too many people are avoiding Steamtown. Too many who go there are leaving disappointed.

Dismayed and frustrated by these trends, some critics of Steamtown’s management are arguing that only privatization, whether partial or sweeping, can provide the capital and expertise needed to upgrade the park’s resources, improve the park’s image, and restore attendance to healthy levels.

The numbers tell the story. Last year only 70,726 people visited Steamtown. Though a slight increase from the year before, this tally is nearly 141,000 fewer than the 211,553 who showed up for the park’s inaugural year. Attendance fell below 100,000 in 2005 and hasn’t revisited that level since.

Back in 1986 when Steamtown was created, many critics complained that the park was a pork barrel project, had too many Canadian locomotives, and had other serious flaws. Regardless of these criticisms, most people – especially local tourism interests -- believed that the park would attract at least several hundred thousands visitors a year for the indefinite future. After all, railroad history and equipment are broadly appealing, Steamtown’s planners envisioned appealing exhibits and activities, and a big share of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the park, which is situated in northeastern Pennsylvania close to densely populated Megalopolis.

The park opened to great fanfare in 1995, and things looked pretty good for a while. Now there is weeping and wailing. What went wrong?

To hear Steamtown’s harshest critics tell it, mismanagement is the central reason that the park hasn’t lived up to expectations. Railfan Donald L. Pevsner, a transportation lawyer and self-billed consumer advocate, has been fascinated – and frustrated – with Steamtown for a long, long time. In fact, he is quite familiar with the provenance of the railroading equipment gathered at Steamtown (tracing all the way back to the original collection at Bellows Falls, Vermont) as well as the key managerial issues and concerns at the park .

Pevsner insists that a disturbingly large of the estimated $176 million spent at Steamtown over the past 22 years has been wasted or misdirected. According to the Times-Tribune article, Pevsner points to three main problems:

■ Deterioration of dozens of locomotives, passenger cars and other pieces that are part of the site’s static collection. “They have been basically allowed to rot into the ground. ... A lot of visitors described it as a junkyard,” [Pevsner] said.

■ Minimal locomotive restoration work. The park’s state-of-the-art locomotive shop is a “near-moribund shadow” of what was originally envisioned.”

■ Reductions in the number and frequency of steam-powered mainline passenger excursions. At one time, Steamtown operated two excursions daily during the peak season; it is running a total of 20 in 2008, including just one each to Delaware Water Gap and Nicholson.

Another of Steamtown’s prominent critics is New Yorker Ross E. Rowland, Jr., a rail enthusiast whose involvement with steam powered rail projects goes back more than 40 years. Like Mr. Pevsner, Rowland is an unabashed supporter of privatization, at the very least for the mainline rail excursion part of the Steamtown operation.

Mr. Rowland argues that the National Park Service is incapable of managing Steamtown the way it should because the agency is suffocated by rules and severely lacking in imagination. Accordingly, the only sure way to put Steamtown back on the road to recovery is to turn it into a true business venture. There’s no basic reason, he says, why Steamtown could not attract a quarter million visitors a year if operation of the site were turned over to a proven commercial steam powered tourist railroad operator.

Steamtown superintendent Harold H. “Kip” Hagen, Jr. disagrees that Steamtown’s problems are as serious as critics contend, and argues that the park’s problems can be corrected in due time using taxpayer money and without resorting to an infusion of cash and managerial/promotional talent from the private sector.

Superintendent Hagen and other National Park Service officials also point out that the park was founded to tell the story of U.S. mainline steam railroading, not to operate tourist excursions in a theme park atmosphere. That said, Steamtown will offer a few more excursions next year and is developing a new business plan for the mainline excursion component of the park’s operation.

If you want to see what it’s like to ride a train at Steamtown, have a look at the video clip at this site.


Don't you realize that tourism brings cash? One of the best things for an economy is tourism! If Strasburg can do it succesfully, why not steamtown? Sure the Strasburg Railroad is nowhere near the milage that is covered on Steamtown's excursions, but yet they have multiple operating steam locomotives that they run regularly (as opposed to the whopping two that steamtown has) and have the resources to maintain them, unlike Steamtown! Straburg is just a farm town! If you can get people to speck on the map that is Strasburg (no offense to any of the residents) you can get people to come to Scranton! The difference between Steamtown and Strasburg is that Strasburg actually has the forsight to take care of their equipment! Strasburg is a perfect example of a shortline steam railroad. Where's our example of a big steam mainline railroad? Steamtown is not a junkyard, but an opportunity! I swear to God if I had the means, I'd buy that "rust belt" and show you a thing or two about how a main line steam railroad can attract visitors! Look at the electric city trolly museum! Look at the Neveda Northern! All privately owned and SUCCESFUL! The only problem Steamtown has is the government! There was a movie quote, what was it now..."If you build it, they will come."

Dear Superheater,

As much as I understand your points, I must argue. Although Pevsner and Rowland may be all talk and don't really know what they're talking about, their points are true. I've been a loyal fan of Steamtown since its dedication in 1995 and I know that, despite the amount of money the government pours into it and the number of volunteers that give up countless hours to it, Steamtown hasn't really changed at all since its creation. I know that money doesn't go that far and that the NPS is doing their best, but with all due respect, the National Park Service could do better.

First of all, if Steamtown is trying to tell the story of railroading in the US, why are the only two operational locomotives at the site Canadian. Wouldn't you think to story of railroading would be better told with American locomotives, especially some of the more famous ones at Steamtown, like Nickel Plate #759 and Reading #2124?

Secondly, if Steamtown only exists to tell that story, a 15 minute train ride around the site full of rusting and rotting rolling stock doesn't portray that story very well. Railroads in their day took care of their rolling stock; if it needed repair, it got it; if it needed new paint, it got it. I know something on that scale isn't cheap, but in the long run, it would do a lot for Steamtown. In relation to mainline excursions, I found the one comment in the other article about Steamtown existing to tell the story of railroading, not for excursions, ridiculous. With the types of engines that Steamtown uses, the story would be better told out on the mainline. Part of the story of railroading are those long excursions. Throughout this entire country, if a railroading museum has live steam or diesel, they have a good expanse of track to run it on.

Thirdly, since Steamtown is given $5.2 million a year by the government, is it really that hard to save some of it and restore another American locomotive? Think about it. Boston & Maine #3713 costs about 1.3 million to restore and she's not very well known Considering the fame of Nickel Plate #765 and the amount of attention Ohio Central is getting for the restoration of Nickel Plate #763, don't you think their would be more support, donations and volunteers, and in the long run be worth it to restore Nickel Plate #759? She alone would bring a whole lot more people to Steamtown. The only thing really wrong with #759 is that she needs new flues and tubes. You could probably get a couple of those off of NKP #757 in Strasburg. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania has no intentions of restoring her; I'm pretty sure they wouldn't mind a few things being removed. That alone would bring so many more people to Steamtown, money would soon not be an issue anymore.

Fourthly, why does Steamtown always submit to other railroads in the area. You're a Federal Park; I think the Federal Government has some influence. Take, for example, the mainline from Scranton north to Binghamton and the wye at Norfolk Southern's Portland yard. You would think the the NPS would really be pushing to use the wye. I know my steam engines and I know running tender-first up a grade like the Pocono Summit grade does more harm than good for a steam engine. It wouldn't even cost that much for the government to step in and say to Canadian Pacific or Norfolk Southern, "You're going to let Steamtown do these things." Especially with Canadian Pacific. After all, Steamtown did give Canada its National Locomotive, Empress 2816.

In conclusion, I would just like to reiterate that I do understand where you are coming from. Money doesn't grow on trees, and especially for an operation the size of Steamtown, every penny has to be pinched. I just feel that in the long run, things would be a lot better for Steamtown if some things were changed

Thank You

More correctly, I should have said all revenue bills originate in the House of Representatives.

HOWEVER: Appropriations bills must be enacted by Congress in the Constitution. Can you imagination if Congress NEVER interfered with appropriations proposals from Congress? Sen. McCain says he wants no congressional earmarks, BUT DO YOU REALLY WANT CONGRESS JUST TO RUBBER STAMP THE APPROPRIATION REQUESTS OF THE PRESIDENT, no matter who she/he is?? Ruling out any change by Congress to a President's budget cannot be a good idea.

The point is: The idea of a congressional earmark itself is not the problem. The problem is either the MERIT of the individual earmark, and the TRANSPARENCY of the earmark. The additional problem with Steamtown, which had problems both with transparency and merit, was that there was no NPS STUDY, and no REVIEW AND APPROVAL BY THE AUTHORIZING COMMITTEE OF CONGRESS.


to Chris BugsyShallFall, I would only observe that Oklahoma City should be no model of anything. The NPS has no real accountability over that site, because once again the money just comes from congressional initiative against any common sense or actual oversight. Again, unlike Steamtown and Cumberland Is, Oklahoma City has had all the money it needs for what it needed to do. Ditto, Cuyahoga.

A better model is a heritage area in which the NPS should approve a plan based on what will be protected and interpreted and how it will be done (strategy), and should then fund the area based on performance. It should be part of a regional tourism strategy heavily leveraged by local governments, the private sector and the State.

That is a much better Idea

Dear RoadRanger

-- thanks for clarifying the point about Baltimore. Yours is a very important point. Not enough is known about when a site or museum is self-sustainable, and why not when it is not. Baltimore is an interesting overall case, because it has more successful tourism than the much larger, and presumably higher-quality (re: # of nationally significant sites) Philadelphia. But the issues in Gettysburg and Valley Forge and many others will continue to plague --ASSUMING WE DEMAND SITES TO BE ECONOMICALLY SUSTAINABLE RATHER THAN SEEING FEDERAL APPROPRIATIONS -- until real and predictive feasibility studies can be done as a matter of course.

-- yes, you are right about Cumberland Is Wilderness, and right about Carter. I think Reagan and the NPS should have made a better solution at Cumberland Is, in the same way NPS followed up on Ickies and FDR and made parks of the 30's and 40's work. And of course, the Alaska Lands Act by carter, and his national monuments is the largest conservation action by any American President.

-- I don't think MLK site is his legacy, though, any more than other parks created during his time were his. Most were really established by Phil Burton.

thanks for this dialog.

A “thank you” to Anonymous for providing us with some real meat in the clarifying memo, and reinforcing how critical it is to follow the money if you want the real answers. Re the Baltimore collection, my point was not to study the origins, but to examine the evolution of the sites over the past 25 years. Granted, there are some obvious differences between them, but I’d like to know why the Baltimore museum – operations and management, whatever – made such a remarkable recovery. Re Reagan and Cumberland Island, the seashore was established in 1972 and operating before Carter was in office, so wilderness was the legacy issue. I can’t imagine Reagan liking any park legislation and I don’t know who drafted the letter for his signature, but they certainly understood the consequences. It may have been a noble effort in the ‘70s and early ‘80s to support a “wilderness” designation for Cumberland Island, but it certainly wasn’t realistic. Following the money and power will tell us why the NPS lost that one, too.

Anonymous raises an interesting point with legacy parks. In a single term, Jimmy Carter was one of the lucky presidents to get two parks for his home state, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, and Martin Luther King National Historic Site, and much of Alaska for all of us. He has quite a legacy when it comes to preservation.

CLARIFYING RESPONSES to RoadRanger; to Beamis; to ChrisBugsyShallFall:

-- to RoadRanger: Your Baltimore idea as the better site, of course misses the point that the only reason NPS got a Steamtown is because the congressman was from Scranton, high on the Appropriations Committee, and was looking for something to do for Scranton. There was no study, to determine either if there was a better collection elsewhere, or what a feasible protection strategy could or should be. In fact, there was no legislation, per se, because it became law via an insert into an APPROPRIATIONS bill, not a normal legislative "authorization."

You also indulge in a little political naivete with your Reagan Quote on Cumberland Wilderness , "Don't even think about sending me something this absurd again." Reagan must have know Cumberland was one-of-a-kind because it was the legacy NPS project for former President Jimmy Carter. It is true that some Presidents get more than one legacy project, but the point is they often do not fit any pattern. Look, for example, of FDR's St. Paul's Church near the Bronx (a project of his mother's, and actually enacted after Roosevelt's death) and the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, owned by a friend of Roosevelt's who needed to unload it: neither area is nationally significant or nationally distinctive. So Reagan was just pretending he had virtue, when he knew in advance Cumberland Island was one of a kind. Carter just wanted the NPS to figure out a way to save the place, but under Reagan no one was going to go in and acquire all the inholding land parcels, as Roosevelt so often did.

And RoadRanger, the Real Politik missing in your comment about the terrific RR managed through agreement with
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is once again, Cuyahoga is one-of-a-kind, because Republican Congressman Ralph Regula has provided them all the money they needed. These are all sweet insights, but naive because first you need to consider: where's the money??

RoadRanger is right about the staff at Steamtown: the superintendent is once of the nicest and quickest project manager in the NPS. However, he is not an economic development specialist, and not a tourism or heritage area development specialist, which they needed about 10 years ago. Within the limited scope of work, and the now-limited available money, this superintendent cannot do more for Scranton or Steamtown. He would be a brilliant superintendent at a different park, and Steamtown is lucky to have him.

-- Beamis is wrong to blame Bud Shuster (R-PA) for Steamtown. Steamtown is the creation of ANOTHER Republican from Pennsylvania, Congressman Joe McCade of Scranton. The deal was put together by his congressional staffer, Debbie Weatherly, of Scranton herself (who as a result of this Experience was moved by McDade to become the lead Republican congressional staffer in the Appropriations subcommittee that funds national parks, the Arts Endowment, Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, etc), and aided by another congressional staffer from Sranton, who was on the Full Committee of Appropriations but actually working for McDade. Weatherly has been enormously important to Steamtown, all the more interesting because of her dominance of the NPS budget nationwide for the past 12 years. All the money that has gone to Steamtown was apppropriated by McDade. At one point, he was actually scheduled to become the Chairman of the Full Committee of Appropriations, but the threat of an ethics investigation worried Gingrich, who made Bob Livingston (R of LA) chairman instead, in order to delay or forestall the investigation. The first time the National Park Service said anything nice about Steamtown was when Ms. Weatherly and the Republicans moved into the Majority and Weatherly took over the NPS budget. The Deputy NPS Director at the time, formerly head of the Denver Service Center, would introduce Ms. Weatherly to room-fulls of park superintendents and "assure" them that Ms. Weatherly was doing a great job and Steamtown was completely legit. We all thought he'd be turned into sushi if he said anything else. All this is a lesson in the ethics of the Republican Party. Although McDade had to resign, Ms. Weatherly is still there, although now in the Minority.

But Beamis is wrong, most of all, to suggest that the money that went to Steamtown would have gone to some other worthy NPS project elsewhere if it had not gone to Steamtown.

OVERWHELMINGLY, money from "pork" is only available for what the congressman wants.

It would not go back into the general NPS coffers! WAKE UP everybody! It would probably would have disappeared into a different project in Scranton.

(Look at what happened to the famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska: Governor Palin still got ALL the money, but just for SOME OTHER PORK PROJECT of hers! I am always dazzled by these assertions that if you take the money from "pork" it would go to something the speaker thinks is more legit. Well, the fact is, the Constitution makes the money bill originate in the Congress, not the Presidency. There are good reasons for the Constitution to make the congress, not the President, in charge of the money. But the point is: You cannot solve the problem of "pork" by saying you are just against the whole "category" of spending via congressional initiative. SOME congressional projects are good. Some are dogs. Each one needs to be evaluated on its own merits. We need transparency. We need evaluation. That is what the new Appropriations Chairman says we will have. We will see. But when McDade and Weatherly did Steamtown, they did it with no oversight, and later when the parks Authorization subcommittee chairman (D-Minn) tried to put the brakes on it, he barely accomplished anything. People like McDade and Weatherly should be made to operate in the sunshine.

-- to Chris BugsyShallFall, I would only observe that Oklahoma City should be no model of anything. The NPS has no real accountability over that site, because once again the money just comes from congressional initiative against any common sense or actual oversight. Again, unlike Steamtown and Cumberland Is, Oklahoma City has had all the money it needs for what it needed to do. Ditto, Cuyahoga.

A better model is a heritage area in which the NPS should approve a plan based on what will be protected and interpreted and how it will be done (strategy), and should then fund the area based on performance. It should be part of a regional tourism strategy heavily leveraged by local governments, the private sector and the State.

As several point out in this thread, of course, the truth is the local business community either does not support or cannot support this stragegy sufficently. And the idea that tourists would drive over from NYC on the newly-constructed Interstate HyWy across New Jersey, itself built in order to CREATE economic development in northern Pennsylvania, not RESPOND to development, did not revive Steamtown OR Scranton.

The trains are impressive. But people like to see things MOVE. Perhaps they would like to see the countryside, if real excursions were available. No static exhibit of trains will attract anyone to Scranton. The notion that the trains would make a shopping mall viable is only one shade better than the Sevens-Palin bridge-to-nowhere.

I think the reason this particular brand of politicians get away with this sort of thing is, ultimately, they and their colleagues of the same stripe do not really care about national parks, or an effective transportation system either. We have had in History great Republicans like T. Roosevelt who believed in National Parks, or more recently great Republicans such as John Chafee who had the power to get whatever he wanted, but would not support "dogs" no matter what benefit to some donor. We need elected officials in BOTH parties who believe in parks and historic preservation, not these cynics we have today.

Beamis is right when he says

All I'm saying is that Steamtown was a dog from the git go and the NPS more or less said so when it was proposed way back when. It was deliberately conceived and forcibly shoved through the legislative gauntlet as an economic development project by one of the legendary grand masters of pork barrel politics Congressman Bud Shuster.

but the idea of turning it into a park and museum was not the bad Idea. The bad idea was making a national park run with taxpayers money. It should have been a partnership run with the help of NPS much like the National Monument in Oklahoma City is run.

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