Rockhill Furnace, PA: Thanks to grants from the Friends of the East Broad Top and an anonymous donor, a professional archivist and an intern are spending this summer establishing a plan to catalog and preserve the East Broad Top Railroad’s vast archival holdings. But the effort will take years to complete, and the railroad’s new owner, the EBT Foundation, Inc., will need to raise money to pay for it while also rebuilding locomotives, coaches, and track.
Julie K. Rockwell, of Huntingdon, Pa. (left), will lead the project. She recently completed a master’s-degree program in museum studies and digital archiving offered by the Johns Hopkins University. Samuel Bellin, a Juniata College senior from Pittsburgh who is majoring in history, is the archives intern.
“I’m honored to have been chosen to be a part of this historic moment in building the program and stewarding the archives,” says Ms. Rockwell.
“My goal is to eventually make these collections discoverable and accessible by using digital age curation strategies.” Sharing the EBT’s history, she adds, will put its current operations in a richer context while helping sustain the memory of the railroad’s people and communities.
The first task facing Ms. Rockwell and Mr. Bellin is just to estimate the size and condition of the railroad’s holdings. Three fireproof brick vaults within the Orbisonia station are filled from floor to 12-foot ceiling with property records, ledger books dating to the 19th century, and decades’ worth of maps and drawings from the railroad’s engineering office. Dozens of file cabinets and blueprint drawers hold all manner of additional material.
Many of the documents are mundane, but others are fascinating. A 1956 letter from Roy Wilburn, the EBT’s operating vice-president, to Nick Kovalchick, the salvage-company operator who was the line’s new owner, reported that railroad and mine trackage amounted to 7,427 net tons of rail. A drawing by F.M. Butler, the railroad’s chief of engineering, details the current turntable, purchased secondhand and installed in 1914. A book of daily locomotive inspection reports includes a note from March 20, 1956, saying that No. 18 had derailed twice on the Narco branch and that track-crew member Fred Stake “said it was not the track so it must be the engine” — a suspicion that recent inspections of No. 18’s driving wheels confirms.
Outside of the station, Ms. Rockwell and Mr. Bellin have already packed up more than two dozen bins of documents that had been stored elsewhere in the railroad’s Rockhill Furnace facilities for decades (right). These include machine-shop employees’ time slips, assorted shop invoices, inventories of the railroad’s storehouse and machine tools, and locomotive-maintenance reports — all wrapped in brown paper, tied up with string, and labelled in pencil.
Ms. Rockwell and Mr. Bellin will also consult with Friends of the EBT members about that organization’s holdings, with the aim of creating a cataloging system that can accommodate materials held in multiple locations by both the FEBT and the EBT Foundation, Inc., which acquired the railroad in February 2020. Both organizations are 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
“For nearly forty years, Friends of the East Broad Top has worked to preserve every aspect of the East Broad Top Railroad and is enthusiastically partnering with the EBT Foundation to undertake the archives initiative,” says Andy Van Scyoc, president of the Friends. “The story the EBT can tell is truly unmatched because of the massive treasure trove of on-site records and documentation that will soon become available to historians and scholars.”
FEBT members informally advising Ms. Rockwell include Lee Rainey, author of the definitive history of the railroad, and Scarlett Wirt, former president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. Also advising are Jim Tuten, a Juniata College professor of history, and Don Pattison, a retired Pomona College administrator who helped establish the archives program there.
Since the acquisition was announced, numerous items of interest have been donated back to the railroad. The first to be entered into Ms. Rockwell’s new archives database are carbon copies of handwritten EBT train orders from the 1930s (left). “The archives show us the key to the hidden history of the EBT, with each document a piece to fill in the puzzle,” says Mr. Bellin.
Once Ms. Rockwell has an estimate of how much material the archives hold, she will outline a plan for cataloging and preserving it. And the EBT Foundation’s Development Committee will consider how best to raise money to pay for the work.