Saving East Broad Top is a really big deal

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, February 14, 2020

East Broad Top coal trains meet at Cooks, Pa., just east of Robertsdale, in 1953, three years before freight operations ended. Philip R. Hastings
Over the past few years I thought I’d seen about as many miracles as one lifetime permits. How else would you describe the return of Union Pacific Big Boy 4014? Or the creation, out of whole cloth, of Jerry Joe Jacobson’s Age of Steam Roundhouse? Or the breathtaking resurrection of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station? We never dared dream of such things.

Now comes another, maybe the best of all. As reported today on the Trains News Wire, the East Broad Top Railroad, Pennsylvania’s fairy tale narrow-gauge empire, will see a resurgence thanks to the dedication of EBT true believers and the largesse of some railroad philanthropists blessed with a keen appreciation of history.

The new organization, the EBT Foundation Inc., is acquiring approximately 27 miles of the railroad, south from a point near Mount Union, EBT’s old junction with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Included in the transaction is the railroad’s precious home in Rockhill Furnace, site of an eight-stall roundhouse, its roster of six stout Baldwin 2-8-2s, other shop buildings, and various rolling stock. The fact that so much trackage is included is significant — in recent decades, the only section open was a short stretch out of Rockhill Furnace and adjacent Orbisonia.

There are a lot of miracle workers to credit here. They include Brad Esposito, a railroader with a long tenure at Buffalo & Pittsburgh who led the purchase effort along with EBT fans David Brightbill, Lawrence Biemiller, and Stephen Lane. They include the foundation’s key backers: former Norfolk Southern Chairman and Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman; Rail Development Corp. Chairman Henry Posner III; and Bennett Levin, whose Juniata Terminal Co. has kept the PRR flame alive with its Tuscan-red E8 diesels and private cars. 

EBT 2-8-2s stand amid ancient shop buildings in 1955. These and other structures are part of the fabric that makes the railroad an unsurpassed historic treasure. Philip R. Hastings
And they certainly include Joe Kovalchick and his family, which has owned the EBT since 1956. Kovalchick has done something seemingly unprecedented: keep an entire steam railroad environment intact until a more permanent arrangement could come along, one that recognizes EBT’s unique heritage. That he’s done this over several decades, amid the controversies and hassles that come with the territory, is a testimonial to both his patience and his good will.

East Broad Top has a unique historical pedigree. First organized in 1856 as the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Co. to bring semi-bituminous coal out of the surrounding mountains, the three-foot-gauge railroad was built from 1872 to 1874 and ultimately boasted 33 miles of main line. The railroad did its job for more than 80 years, suspending operations in 1956, at which point it was acquired by the Kovalchick Salvage Co. But rather than stick to their standard business model — scrap the railroad — the Kovalchicks kept everything pretty much as it was, even allowing for seasonal train operations over the years. 

Just how magical is the East Broad Top? Former Trains Editor David P. Morgan fell under its spell when he and photographer Philip R. Hastings briefly visited in 1955 during one of their epic steam safaris. “[There’s] a quality of narrow gauge which only asserts itself when you’re fresh from the outside, larger world,” David wrote. “Stay within the n.g. domain a few days, even hours, and it becomes as important, as self-respecting as any railroad operation anywhere.” 

After the Kovalchick family bought the EBT in 1956, they reopened 5 miles of it for tourist train rides in August 1960 while keeping the rest in mothballs. On opening weekend, Mike (fourth from left) and Nick Kovalchick (fifth from left) wave from parlor car Orbisonia; Nick's son Joe Kovalchick looks on from behind. Don Wood
I felt that spell nearly 20 years ago when I first got to Rockhill Furnace. My guide was Pennsylvania’s own Dan Cupper, veteran journalist, historian, and chronicler of the EBT legend. The railroad wasn’t operating the day we visited, but we looked around anyway.

The pastoral scene only added to the East Broad Top mystery. First, we traipsed around the roundhouse and shops in Orbisonia, marveling at the utter completeness of the surrounding scene. Then we drove farther south into the tangle of mountain trackage — all of it still in place — that once served the local mines. We passed through Pogue, Three Springs, Saltillo, and other EBT locations, then hiked up to the portal of Sideling Hill Tunnel, amazingly intact despite the small trees growing up in the gauge.

Needless to say, Dan is thrilled — might we even say giddy? — over the latest EBT news. With decades of experience reporting on EBT’s comings and goings, he puts today’s news in perfect perspective.   

“It’s impossible to overstate the value of this development,” Dan told me. “I’ve long thought that this is as important to the fabric of railroad preservation as Colonial Williamsburg is to 18th century American history. Once it’s gone, there’s no replacing it. Just like Williamsburg, EBT has the potential to become a world-class teaching tool, but in the EBT’s case, it’s for the industrial heritage that built America.

“With its main line through the mountains to the mines,” Dan added, “its 1900-era machine shop, and its original-to-the-site steam engines and rolling stock, EBT combines three of Pennsylvania’s touchstone industries — coal, steel, and railroading.”

Mikado 15 rolls a tourist train toward Orbisonia in 2006, a scene that should be repeated in 2021 under the auspices of the new EBT Foundation. Dan Cupper
The creation of the Foundation serves to confirm what national preservation organizations knew a long time ago. The East Broad Top won a National Historic Landmark designation in 1964, was added to the list of the National Trust for Historic Places in 1966, and showed up on the Trust’s “most endangered” sites in 1996. You have to believe that credentials such as these helped get EBT to this point. 

It’s ironic, now, to look back on Morgan’s parting thoughts after his brief visit with Phil Hastings. He rated EBT’s prospects as grim. “Alas, when big-time railroading is in a squeeze, the grip is death itself upon the fringe — the narrow gauge, the steam, the traction, upon so much of the precious and the noble.”

This is one of those times when we can be glad David was so wrong. No one would appreciate today’s miracle any more than him. 

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