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Nonprofit Buys East Broad Top Railroad, Plans to Renovate and Reopen

Pennsylvania’s storied East Broad Top Railroad has a new owner, a nonprofit foundation organized by a small group of prominent rail-industry figures and longtime EBT fans. The new organization will offer several EBT events in 2020 — the 60th anniversary of the start of tourist service on the railroad — and hopes to resume regular operation in 2021.

The organization, called the EBT Foundation Inc., will own approximately 27 miles of the line, from the south end of the concrete-arch bridge over the Aughwick River below Mount Union to the road crossing in Wood Township. The foundation will also own the narrow-gauge railroad’s shops, rolling stock, and equipment. The East Broad Top is a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This is the best possible outcome for the railroad, which has been in my family for two generations,” says Joseph Kovalchick, whose father, Nick Kovalchick, purchased the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Company after its coal mines closed in 1956. “It is with a combination of pride and relief that we pass the torch in its second reincarnation.” The Kovalchicks will continue to own coal-company property that had been jointly owned with the railroad.

“When my father bought the company, it was never his intention to scrap the railroad. At the time he was the only one to stand for the EBT, and his role in the history books is assured. My generation has struggled to balance the need to preserve this national treasure with running it as a business, and I take pride in our role in its survival. But it is clear that a for-profit business model is not sustainable. Our faith in the new model is reflected in both the sale and the Kovalchick family’s ongoing role on the board of the new non-profit.”

Financial details of the purchase will remain confidential.

Brad Esposito, a 20-year veteran of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. company, led the effort to purchase the EBT, along with longtime EBT enthusiasts David Brightbill, Lawrence Biemiller, and Stephen Lane. 

Backers of the new organization include three rail-industry and rail-preservation heavyweights: Wick Moorman, former chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern and former CEO of Amtrak; Henry Posner III, a former Conrail manager who is chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the Railroad Development Corporation, of Pittsburgh; and Bennett Levin, a retired mechanical and electrical engineer who owns the Juniata Terminal Company, which operates two Pennsylvania Railroad E8 diesel locomotives and three private cars.

Esposito will become the general manager of the railroad. He says the EBT Foundation has a three-part mission. It’s committed, first, to preserving and operating the East Broad Top as a steam railroad; second, to educating visitors about the role of railroads in local and national history; and, third, to promoting local and regional tourism and economic growth.

Esposito says the new organization will immediately begin work on several fronts. The EBT has been closed since late 2011, and before operations can resume, the railroad will need to overhaul track and equipment, including locomotives and passenger cars. A fire-suppression system will be installed in the historic machine shops and roundhouse, and several structural stabilization projects will be undertaken in the railroad’s Rockhill Furnace complex.

“The East Broad Top is a unique national treasure unmatched anywhere in the United States,” says Esposito. “It has been impressively preserved for over 60 years by the Kovalchick family. We are excited to pick up the torch and ensure that the railroad is preserved for future generations.”

“Our close partners will be the volunteers of the Friends of the East Broad Top,” he says. “They have contributed countless hours of work and significant amounts of money to help preserve the historic fabric of the EBT since 1983.”

“Also, we look forward to working with the Rockhill Trolley Museum,” says Esposito. The all-volunteer trolley museum dates to 1960 and operates over the former Shade Gap Branch of the EBT. “This will be an exciting opportunity to promote and further develop tourism in the area.”

“The East Broad Top is a remarkable survivor from the age of steam railroading,” says Moorman. “I’m delighted to have the chance to be a part of its revival, both for the preservation of such an important part of our industrial heritage, and for the economic benefits that it will provide to an area of Pennsylvania that is so closely linked to the railroad industry.”

Levin notes that the EBT runs through a bucolic landscape almost unchanged since the early 1900s. “The railroad’s historic fabric is an important component of the region’s industrial archaeology, and the educational possibilities here are almost limitless.”   

The new organization’s advisors include Linn Moedinger, former president of the Strasburg Rail Road — one of the most successful tourist railroads in the U.S. — and Rod Case, a partner at the consulting firm Oliver Wyman who leads their railway practice. Among the organizations providing support is the Allegheny Ridge Corporation, which manages the region’s state-designated Heritage Area. The corporation “is thrilled to participate in the rebirth of this great asset,” says Astride McLanahan, a longtime board member of the organization. “The EBT is a jewel in the Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area and its revitalization will bring economic opportunity to this rural community.”

Built from 1872 to 1874 to haul coal to a new iron furnace in the center of the state, the 33-mile-long East Broad Top survived the collapse of the local iron industry at the turn of the 20th century because the top-quality coal it carried had found other markets, thanks in part to close cooperation with the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the last of the coal mines closed in 1956, the East Broad Top was purchased by the Kovalchick Salvage Company of Indiana, Pa. Despite being in the scrap business, the company left the railroad intact and in 1960 reopened a portion of the line for steam-powered tourist trains that proved widely popular.

With rails just three feet apart — 4’ 8 ½” is the industry standard — the EBT is the only original narrow-gauge railroad surviving east of the Rocky Mountains, and it is well known as one of the world’s finest preserved railways. The railroad’s shops complex, which dates to the 1880s and was greatly expanded from 1905 to 1907, is among the most complete early-20th-century industrial facilities anywhere in the U.S.

Still in the railroad’s roundhouse in Rockhill Furnace are six narrow-gauge steam locomotives built for the EBT by Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works between 1911 and 1920. They share the building with the unique M-1 gas-electric, constructed at the railroad in 1927 with plans and parts from Philadelphia’s J.G. Brill Company, a leading streetcar manufacturer, and Westinghouse Electric. Other EBT equipment includes several passenger cars believed to date to the 1890s and numerous steel freight cars built in the EBT shops. The East Broad Top was the only American narrow gauge to convert to an all-steel freight car fleet.

Remarkably, track remains in place over nearly the entire 33-mile main line, which connected the coal mines in Robertsdale to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Great Broad Way in Mount Union. The former PRR main line is now Norfolk Southern’s core east-west route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

“The East Broad Top Railroad is a unique historic asset that is a national treasure representing our area’s rich railroad heritage,” says Sen. Judy Ward, who represents southern Huntingdon County in the Pennsylvania Senate. “The sale of this railroad to this group of longtime EBT enthusiasts who are committed to preserving and operating it as a steam railroad is very exciting news for the region because it preserves this irreplaceable treasure for future generations while opening up significant tourism and economic development opportunities.” 

Says Posner: “August 13, 2020, will be the 60th anniversary of the East Broad Top’s first reopening, which took place during the bicentennial of the founding of what became the ‘twin boroughs’ of Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace. This was an era of revised expectations in the face of the decline of the railroad industry nationwide. At that time Nick Kovalchick could not have imagined the possibility of reopening the entire line, but fortunately our industry’s renaissance has helped create an environment in which this important and audacious project can succeed. We are honored to follow in the footsteps of two generations of the family that has made this all possible.”

“This will be a monumental undertaking,” says Esposito, “and I encourage anyone interested in helping us to join the Friends of the East Broad Top and come work on buildings, track and equipment.”