ABOUT THE EAST BROAD TOP RAILROAD
The East Broad Top is many things — a delightful family destination, a National Historic Landmark, a great volunteer opportunity, an unparalleled preservation undertaking, and more. The railroad, which was built beginning in 1872, is the only surviving three-foot gauge common carrier railroad east of the Rocky Mountains. And its shops, parts of which date to the 1880s, are among the best-preserved examples in the U.S. of a late-19th-century/early-20th-century industrial complex — in this case, powered by an overhead belt system driven by a stationary steam engine.
1856-1900: Birth of a Legend
1856: The East Broad Top Railroad receives a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature.
1872: After numerous delays, construction of the railroad begins in Mount Union. Shortly beforehand, the directors decide to save money by building a three-foot-gauge line. This allows them to use sharper curves, lighter bridges, and smaller rail than would be the case with a standard-gauge line, but means the EBT cannot interchange cars with other railroads.
1873: Construction reaches Rockhill Furnace and passenger service begins.
1874: The rails reach what becomes the coal-mining company town of Robertsdale on Broad Top Mountain. The mountain’s folded seams of semi-bituminous coal will eventually be riddled with tunnels stretching far from the initial mine entrance behind the Robertsdale station.
1876: Production begins in the new Rockhill iron furnace. Unlike earlier furnaces in the area, which produced around 800 tons a year, the new furnace is capable of 28,800 tons a year.
1900: The first fire-brick plant opens in Mount Union. Transporting coal and ganister rock to Mount Union’s fire-brick plants becomes a key part of the EBT’s business after the Rockhill iron furnace finds itself unable to compete with more modern operations and better iron ores in the upper Midwest.
1903: Robert Siebert becomes the EBT’s president and begins a major modernization campaign that will eventually encompass track, bridges, locomotives, rolling stock, and repair facilities. The EBT as we know it today is largely the product of Siebert’s policies and plans.
1906: The current EBT station is built in Rockhill Furnace. To avoid confusion with another destination called “Rockhill,” the station is eventually named “Orbisonia,” after the larger town on the other side of Blacklog Creek. The station receives its current platform canopy in 1909.
1911: The EBT rece
ives No. 12, first of what would be six engines with the 2-8-2, or “Mikado,” wheel arrangement. The newest, No. 18, is delivered in 1920.
1913: The EBT orders its first 10 steel hopper cars from a Cincinnati manufacturer. The railroad later buils well over 200 hopper cars from scratch in the Rockhill shops complex.
1924: The railroad builds a crane in Mount Union for transferring timber from its own cars to standard-gauge cars. The Timber Transfer becomes famous in the 1930s when the EBT starts using it to lift standard-gauge cars off their wheels and set them on narrow-gauge wheelsets to be pulled in EBT trains.
1925: A new coal-cleaning plant opens in Mount Union. The plant is served by a dual-gauge yard with three rails for every track, accommodating both narrow-gauge and standard-gauge cars. This allowed the EBT to load coal easily for customers elsewhere.
1927: The EBT builds the M-1 using plans and parts from the J.G. Brill Co., a trolley manufacturer, and Westinghouse Electric. The M-1’s 250-h.p. gasoline engine powers a generator that feeds electricity to motors on all four axles. A 12-seat passenger compartment accommodates riders, while a freight compartment carries packages and the U.S. mail. It is the only such gas-electric unit ever built for an American narrow-gauge railroad.
1936: The EBT operates its first trip for railfans.
1942: The EBT builds its last new branch, a steep spur track up to a North American Refractories Company ganister quarry on Jack’s Mountain.
1953: Regular passenger service ends after the Post Office begins moving mail by truck. Commuter runs for coal miners survive until the following year.
1955: The coal business having dwindled to almost nothing, the railroad files for abandonment in November.
1956: The last mainline runs, pulled by No. 17, operate on April 6. The last switching moves in Mount Union, by No. 3, follow on April 13. Shortly thereafter, the Kovalchick Salvage Company buys the assets of the railroad and the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company. But almost nothing is scrapped.
1956-2020: The Kovalchick Era
1960: As Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace approach their bicentennial celebration, representatives of the planning committee ask Nick Kovalchick if he will put an EBT locomotive on display for the event. He offers to run trains instead. On August 13, 1960, the railroad reopens with trains pulled in one direction by No. 12, nicked “Millie” after Nick’s daughter, and in the other by No. 15. The line is an immediate hit.
1961: The EBT builds a wye to turn trains, as well as picnic facilities, at the site of a former spur track serving a clay pit.
1963: The Rockhill Trolley Museum opens and begins laying standard-gauge track on the EBT’s former Shade Gap Branch.
1971: Abandonment is formally rescinded.
1982: Friends of the EBT is organized, initially for model railroaders.
1986: FEBT leases the Robertsdale station and buys the neighboring Old Post Office.
2002: FEBT volunteers begin the first of many restoration projects in Rockhill, the section shed at the south end of the yard.
2011: At the end of a busy season featuring both Thomas the Tank Engine and the Polar Express, the EBT’s final train of the year operates on December 23. The railroad then closes, although FEBT volunteers continue stabilization and restoration projects and occasional public tours are offered.
2020: The EBT Foundation purchases the railroad from the Kovalchicks.
For a more detailed history of the EBT, see Lee Rainey and Frank Kyper’s excellent 1982 book “East Broad Top.”
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