New Hope for the East Broad Top

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

The dormant gem of railway preservation is the East Broad Top, the last narrow gauge common carrier to operate in the eastern United States and a time machine of industrial technology preserved in place. The Kovalchick family purchased it for scrap in 1956 but didn’t scrap it. They kept five miles of the railroad running for tourists but shut it down in 2011, feeling it was no longer economically viable. The family has kept two workers employed part time to do basic maintenance, but otherwise the railroad has been in limbo.

All has not been quiet, and there are multiple moving parts to this story.

Friends of the East Broad Top

The non-profit, all-volunteer Friends of the East Broad Top has soldiered on, stabilizing, reroofing and otherwise repairing the Orbisonia shop buildings. They’ve been restoring combine #14, a side dump hopper car and converted a steel boxcar into a handicapped accessible passenger car with solar powered wheelchair lift. They’ve restored the depot and company store/old post office at the far end of the line in Robertsdale, which is close to opening as a museum/archive. Funded by private donations, the Friends have been spending $50,000-60,000 annually. That appears about to increase dramatically. More on that later.

Rockhill Trolley Museum

Rockhill Trolley Museum, a tenant of the EBT, has remained open and active, even expanding its carhouse on the east edge of the Orbisonia yard. Years ago they relaid and standard gauged two miles of the abandoned EBT Shade Gap branch. When the EBT was running, its tourist trains were turned on the wye to the Shade Gap branch and actually shared track with the streetcars on a short piece of dual-gauge.

East Broad Top Preservation Association

There is one other game in town. The East Broad Top Preservation Association has acquired the northern portion of line, including the dual gauge Mount Union yard and three miles extending south.  Their 2018 tax report cites revenues totaling $122,000, from some combination of car storage, freight car maintenance and tours of the Mount Union yard. There has been little public information about this organization and this writer was unable to make contact with them.

Despite these divergent efforts, the railroad isn’t running, and has been included on Most Endangered lists for years.

The East Broad Top Foundation

A potential white knight has now appeared, the newly formed East Broad Top Foundation. Its board and management is an all-star team of railroaders and preservationists, including retired Norfolk Southern and Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman, Iowa Interstate owner Henry Posner and Juniata Terminal owner and well-known preservationist Bennett Levin. Also on the Board are Friends of the EBT members Brad Esposito, Lawrence Biemiller and David Brightbill. Esposito is an experienced railroader and will serve as general manager. Brightbill has been the EBT office manager, and will continue in that role and as treasurer. Biemiller, who will serve as secretary, is on the Friends’ board. Advising the effort is Linn Moedinger, retired President of the Strasburg Rail Road and a former HeritageRail Alliance Board member.

Also on the Board is Jane Sheffield, Executive Director of the Allegheny Ridge Corporation (ARCorp), which manages the region’s state-designated Heritage Area, shown on the map below. According to its website, “Allegheny Ridge Corporation is a not-for-profit organization charged with the restoration and development of the historic, cultural, and natural resources of the Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area in central/western Pennsylvania, and throughout the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway. Through the development and promotion of dozens of local partners’ heritage and recreation amenities, ARCorp not only improves resident quality-of-life, but also advances tourism, Pennsylvania’s second largest industry. The Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway is ARCorp’s signature initiative.”

The East Broad Top falls squarely in the ARC’s area of influence.

The 320-mile Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway

The Foundation has purchased the entire southern 27 miles of the railroad south of the Aughwick Creek bridge. The transaction includes the right of way under branch lines that were pulled up long ago, plus some other non-right of way parcels. It also includes the old coal company office building in Robertsdale that houses the current post office. It should be mentioned that almost all the main line track is still in place. When I first visited the line 20 years ago, I couldn’t see the rails until I kicked one with my foot, but they’re there.

I interviewed Lawrence Biemiller to get a better idea of how the Foundation is planning to proceed, and also to get up to date on other EBT developments.

Reviving the EBT won’t be cheap, and I asked if there were any funding sources on the horizon. Biemiller said that several large donors were waiting for this to come together, but didn’t want to name them at this time. He said there will be a major fundraising push, with the goal of getting the trains running as soon as possible. He is working closely with the Allegheny Ridge Corporation, whose strength is putting funding and projects together. A number of grant applications are in progress.

When it comes to the trains themselves, the big challenge is reviving the steam locomotives. Linn Moedinger and others have assessed the condition of all six 2-8-2s. They’ve decided that #14 and #16 are the best candidates. This is notable, because #16 hasn’t run since 1956, yet was found to be a good condition.

When the railroad was still running, trains from Orbisonia left the main line and wyed out at Colgate Grove. The purchase includes 23 acres there, and one idea is to create an event center on that land to raise revenue, since it would not impact the historic character of the railroad.

Growing the Friends

During the Kovalchiks’ ownership, the trains were entirely staffed by paid employees. The Friends’ role was to stabilize and repair the shop buildings. Over the years that expanded to rolling stock restoration and even track work, but not train service.

One goal of reviving the railroad is to create paying jobs. The Foundation is definitely working hand in hand with the Friends. but the division of labor between employees and volunteers is probably a ways from sorting itself out. That said, volunteers will probably be involved where they weren’t before.

During the years of limbo, the number of volunteers attending the Friends’ monthly work weekends declined slowly to about 12-15 people. However, after news of the Foundation purchase, to everyone’s surprise 66 showed up for the most recent weekend. Membership has suddenly risen from 700 to over 1000. It’s clear that a lot of people want to help now that the EBT has a brighter future.

The Foundation has been consulting with the Cumbres & Toltec. Both are narrow gauge treasures located well away from major population centers, yet they have a large fan base. The C&TS, and to a lesser extent the Wiscasset Waterville & Farmington 2-footer have adopted a model of periodic work weeks that attract scores of volunteers. They require sophisticated logistics planning to put materials, tools and even meals in place, so that well organized projects can move forward at record speed.

That model would seem to make sense on the EBT, and the Friends realize they’ll have to up their game to productively use the newly energized volunteers.

There are certainly projects to work on. A top priority is to raise and stabilize the last portion of the main shop building’s foundation. It sags, and the line shaft overhead belt system that powers the machine tools sags with it. Once it is repaired, it will be possible to return a portion of the belt system to operation, opening the door to all sorts of interpretive opportunities.

Even more pressing is to stabilize one of two storehouses that is sinking into soft ground and in danger of collapse. It was built with no foundation and sits on wooden sills. The reason it’s sinking is the 600-700 parts bins that fill its two floors. Inside the bins are tons of parts for everything the EBT was involved with. The building is hard to access. It will have to be emptied, and its contents catalogued, before it can be overhauled. In the downstairs “engineers’ cubby”, the door won’t open and no one is sure what parts are inside. Between preventing a collapse and getting access to the parts, there’s a huge incentive to complete this project.

Meanwhile, the Friends continue to restore combine #14. Combine #18 and baggage car #29, acquired from a museum in Fort Lipton, Colorado, are future projects, but both are in rough shape.

It’s too early to tell when the trains will be able to run again. Certainly the appearance of the coronavirus has pushed back the timetable. But for the first time in almost a decade, there’s new hope for the East Broad Top.