The International Steam Pages
The East Broad Top Railroad 2011
James Waite writes:
Iron smelting began at Rockhill Furnace, now the home of the 3ft gauge East Broad Top Railroad, in 1831 using ore mined in the hills to the east. The first smelter was fired by charcoal but the discovery of the Bessemer process of steelmaking led to a search for coal. This was found on East Broad Top mountain in what turned out to be an isolated seam some 15 miles or so to the south west. The construction of the East Broad Top Railroad to transport the coal to Rockhill Furnace and both iron products and coal onwards to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Mount Union was authorised in 1856. Matters were put on hold during the US Civil War and building work eventually got under way in 1872, starting from Mount Union. The decision to build to the 3ft gauge seems to have been taken quite late in the day. The first stretch of the line, including today’s preserved section, reached Rockhill Furnace in 1873 and the mining district near Robertsdale, 32 miles south of Mount Union, the following year. As far as Saltillo the line was relatively easily graded. The twisting 1 in 25 climb up onto the mountain began there and included two significant tunnels which, in later years, were fitted with doors at their northern ends to protect them from ice in the winter.
Several branches followed, one of particular significance to the railway’s longevity being the Narco branch from Saltillo, built to serve a quarry producing ganister rock which was used in the manufacture of firebricks at Mount Union. The brickworks company continued to ship the rock over the EBT up until the line’s closure in April 1956.
The iron industry faded away in the early 1900’s but by then the line had become principally a coal carrier. A large washing plant was constructed at Mount Union from where the coal could be loaded directly into standard gauge wagons to be hauled away over the Pennsylvania Railroad. The sizeable yard there was laid as mixed gauge and the EBT ran two standard gauge 0-6-0’s to work the yard up to the time of the closure.
The line was sufficiently profitable to enable the main line to be upgraded and relaid with heavier rail in the early 1900’s. This facilitated the use of much larger locos than had been common on many of the country’s narrow gauge lines. The first loco fitted with a trailing truck, 2-6-2 no. 11, arrived from Baldwin in 1908. Four years later no. 12, the line’s first 2-8-2 was delivered. Five more 2-8-2’s were built every two years or so until 1920, the design being enlarged and improved substantially during the period.
The period from around 1910 to the early 1930’s saw what were perhaps the line’s golden years. An initial order for 10 large all-steel bogie coal hoppers in 1913 from the Pressed Steel Car Co. was followed by more than two hundred similar vehicles which were built in the company’s own shops at Rockhill Furnace. In 1927 it looked to acquire a petrol railcar to reduce the cost of working its passenger service when traffic was light. The Brill company, best known for its tramcars, had a stock of petrol motors left over from an unsuccessful bid for supplying the US military during the First World War but lacked the facility to build narrow gauge rolling stock. The railway bought in suitable parts from them and erected petrol electric railcar no. M-1 in its Rockhill Furnace shops. The following year it built from scratch a small 4-wheeled inspection saloon which became no. M-3. More than 80 years later both are still in service, little altered.
In the late 1920’s the line lost its timber transport business. This rendered redundant the large overhead electric crane which had been installed to tranship the timber onto the standard gauge at Mount Union. Thanks to the upgrading 25 years previously the loading gauge could easily accommodate standard gauge wagons. Instead of scrapping the crane the railroad adapted it to serve as a bogie changing facility so that main line wagons could work through over its system. This virtually eliminated transhipment costs as the rest of the traffic consisted mostly of the coal which could be offloaded from the washer at Mount Union directly onto the standard gauge and the ganister rock whose end destination was the brickworks there. This must have been a main reason why the line was able to survive as a common carrier into the 1950’s, long after most US narrow gauge lines had become just a distant memory.
The line was not sufficiently profitable to enable large-scale modernisation to be undertaken after the first years of the twentieth century. As a result the station at Rockhill Furnace (actually named Orbisonia after the neighbouring town just half a mile away over the valley) and the extensive roundhouse and works facility there survived with very little change until the line closed. They’re still there now. The works is a marvel of overhead shafts and antiquated machine tools, familiar to us in the UK from the similar installation in the old Dinorwic workshops at Llanberis which now house the Welsh National Slate Museum but quite without parallel in the US. Sadly the buildings were constructed without adequate foundations and settlement over the years has damaged many of the overhead shafts. However a relatively small part is still usable and is run on special occasions.
The coal trade collapsed in the mid-1950’s and with the disappearance of the line’s main traffic it was inevitable that closure soon followed. A few weeks later the entire railway and mining company was sold to the Kovalchick Salvage Company which had been making a good living from scrapping abandoned railroads. Its passing was mourned by the local enthusiasts who had been visiting it in increasing numbers since it ran its first enthusiasts special some 20 years previously. No doubt they thought they could read the writing on the wall but, to everyone’s surprise, only a couple of the short branches were lifted and a small amount of the rolling stock sold off. The main line and all the installations at Rockhill Furnace were left untouched.
Three years later the Kovalchick family was making discrete enquiries about the economics of running tourist railroads, then a new phenomenon in the US. Whether reopening had always been the plan, whether the Kovalchick family had only appreciated the historic nature of the small railroad after they acquired it, whether they had just been waiting for scrap metal prices to rise or whether they perhaps foresaw a possibility of reviving the coal trade is a matter for speculation. Be that as it may a four mile stretch of the railway north from Rockhill Furnace reopened as a tourist line in 1960 and was extended a further mile the following year.
The rest of the main line survives unused. The line had assembled a collection of historic passenger coaches over many years from other US lines which had fallen by the wayside. Sadly some of these were sold off before the reopening but three survive at the line including no. 20 “Orbisonia”, a magnificent business car to use the US parlance complete with period leather-upholstered arm chairs. The steel hoppers have proved a godsend to many of the country’s preserved 3ft gauge lines and some can be found in service as pw vehicles as far away as the White Pass line in Alaska and on the Colorado narrow gauge. Large numbers of them still slumber away on the mixed gauge trackage in Mount Union yard and one of the two standard gauge switchers still resides in the small mixed gauge loco shed there more than 50 years after it last ran.
One development has been that a standard gauge tramcar – or trolley in US parlance – museum was set up at one side of the yard at Rockhill Furnace soon after the 1960’s reopening. Now known as the Rockhill Trolley Museum this has gone from strength to strength. Part of the old Shade Gap branch, one of the lines lifted in the 1950’s, has been reconstructed and electrified for their use. There’s even a short stretch of mixed gauge where the trolleys use a portion of the EBT’s wye to reach their Orbisonia station, just over the road from the EBT station. Some of the cars come from Pennsylvania’s historic trolley lines while others originated as far afield as Porto and Rio de Janeiro. Many of them have been superbly restored and you may well want to find time to explore the museum even if tramcars aren’t really your thing.
All six of the 2-8-2’s survive in the Rockhill Furnace roundhouse. Four of them have seen service at various times since the 1960 reopening and at one time quadruple headed trains were run at enthusiast events. Stricter federal railroad regulation in the past few years has meant that only no. 15 is able to run today after a 3-year rebuild at the expense of the Kovalchicks to meet the new standards.
In 2009 the Kovalchicks pulled out from operating the line and granted a three-year lease to a not-for-profit organisation along with an option to purchase it. The lease is due to run out in April 2012 and I don’t know whether any arrangements are yet in place for operation in the future. The enthusiast world owes a debt of gratitude to the Kovalchicks for rescuing it and ensuring its survival into the 21st century.
We visited during the 2011 Fall Spectacular weekend. A few notes to supplement the info on the railway’s website (http://www.ebtrr.com/) may assist for visits in future years. It’s a 3-day event. Friday’s details weren’t on the site but actually consisted of a very authentic-looking photo freight car special for most of the day plus a public passenger train late morning and a night photo shoot on Friday evening. The night shoot involved flashguns instead of the usual floodlighting and I found it difficult to suss out the possibilities for each location in advance. It was just a case of standing in the photo line, waiting to see what happened and hoping I’d got the exposure right. That said some of the results were spectacular. The “long mixed train” advertised for Saturday and Sunday actually consists of the railway’s open and closed coaches and not freight stock. As with the regular passenger trains the historic closed coaches were marshalled at the rear of the train in both directions - a shame as this limited the train’s photographic appeal. The event is one of the few occasions when the old railcar M-1 and the equally historic inspection car M-3 have public outings and these are well worth seeing. All in all the event was great fun.
Orbisonia is rather more than 3 hours drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 76, from Philadelphia airport. It’s a similar distance away from the airport at Washington DC which has a more frequent service from the UK but flights there tend to be more expensive. Accommodation anywhere near the railway is thin on the ground. We stayed at the Rockhill Cottage B&B, a small late 19th century wooden building opposite Orbisonia station which has been expertly restored by Susan Rutter, a most genial hostess. It’s a historic delight in its own right. We spent a lot of our time sitting out in Susan’s porch on her rocking chairs just watching the trains coming and going in the afternoon sunshine while sipping our tea – what could be better?! Highly
This railway is a wonderful place to visit with smartly maintained rolling stock and facilities at Rockhill Furnace which just ooze character. There’s no over-the-top restoration or funny paint schemes which spoil some of the country’s preserved railways – just good, straightforward heritage. In my view it’s just one of the most delightful preserved railways anywhere.
EBT Steam locomotive list
Just a few minutes after we'd arrived at our guesthouse the evening before the gala event the temptation to cross the road and see how things were shaping up was just too great! Here's no. 15 brewing up in the roundhouse a little before midnight with no. 14 behind.
In the not-so-clear light of day before the mist had lifted the following morning no. 15 heads north with its photo freight special and approaches Enyart Road level crossing.
The photo train a little to the north of Enyart Road.
No. 15 at speed approaching the Runk Road bridge with a southbound train.
No's. 12 and 15 at night in Rockhill Furnace yard.
No. 15 at Orbisonia station.
Narrow gauge superpower! No. 18, the line's newest and most powerful loco, slumbers inside Rockhill Furnace roundhouse. It failed a few weeks before the 1956 closure and hasn't run since. Behind it is no. 16, another loco which hasn't run since 1956.
No. 14 in the roundhouse. Its chassis and mechanical parts are probably in the best state of any of the 2-8-2's but it's been sidelined since 2001 in need of boiler work. Note that it's missing its trailing pony truck which no. 15 has been "borrowing" while its own is away for repair.
Early morning at Rockhill Furnace yard. No. 15 brews up beside the turntable which came second hand from the New York Central around 100 years ago. No. 18's tender slumbers on inside the roundhouse. The stone building is the old Rockhill Farmhouse which pre-dates the railway. The railway bought the farm to use the site for its yard and shops and the house has been used as the yard office ever since.
1916 More narrow gauge superpower! I don't know whether no. 17's tractive effort compares with its 2-8-2 sisters on the Rio Grande narrow gauge or at the White Pass but it looks a mightily butchy beast.
Two views inside the shops. Sadly the stationary engine isn't steam powered these days. Compressed air was being used to drive the machinery during the weekend's shops tours. For a 2009 YouiTube videos see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKgGomZKeaw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keRLDhRdV-E.
Railcar M-1 in action midway along the line.(left) and iInspection car M-3 outside its shed at Rockhill Furnace (right).
Inside coach no. 8. I haven't discovered quite how old this coach is or when it arrived at the EBT but it was very many years ago. Like several of the line's coaches it came second hand from the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn RR. In the 1920's it was fitted with roller bearings for use as a trailer with railcar M-1.
Business car no. 20 "Orbisonia". I couldn't fit it all in on account of the crowds milling around Orbisonia station during this well-attended event, even at night. The coach was built by the Billmeyer and Small Car Works in 1882 and came to the EBT in 1907 second hand from the Big Level and Kinzua RR.