News & Reviews News Wire East Broad Top still needs a savior NEWSWIRE

East Broad Top still needs a savior NEWSWIRE

By Wayne Laepple | August 26, 2019

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This is the eighth summer the famed East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad has remained closed.
Wayne Laepple
East Broad Top 2-8-2 No. 15 rolls in the summer of 2009.
Trains: Jim Wrinn
ORBISONIA, Pa. — The track is still there. The buildings are still there. The trim Mikados and hopper cars original to the coal-hauling railroad are still there. The one thing missing at the fabled East Broad Top, the Pennsylvania narrow gauge renowned for its completeness, is a plan forward. Eight years after rolling its last mile as a tourist line, there is still no permanent course for its future.

At this point, if anyone were interested in restarting it as an operating tourist attraction, it would cost millions to bring the locomotives up to current standards, replace hundreds of ties, repair bridges, and entice visitors to a remote section of the Keystone State.

Joseph Kovalchick is the elderly CEO of Kovalchick Co., an Indiana, Pa.-based scrapper, which has owned the EBT since 1956 when it shut down as a freight railroad. It came back as a tourist line in 1960. He says the railroad and all adjacent properties are for sale. Though he won’t disclose an asking price, several sources peg that figure at $8 million for the entire package of the railroad and several thousand acres of former coal company lands. Kovalchick insists on a package deal — all or nothing.

Despite encroaching weeds and brush along the railroad, peeling paint on various buildings, and other signs of benign neglect, a couple of long-time employees do attempt to keep the grass around the Rockhill Furnace station, roundhouse and shops area under control. Some painting has been done recently.

The Friends of the East Broad Top, a non-profit, has been holding monthly volunteer work weekends at Rockhill Furnace, Pa., and Robertsdale, Pa., for years, stabilizing and restoring buildings and rolling stock. Kovalchick kicks in for materials, and he allows the group to hold occasional open house tours of the roundhouse and shops complex to raise funds for their restoration work.

Lee Rainey, former president of the FEBT and current board member, says, “The big news is the near completion of the stabilization and renovation of the 1884 freight office, which was in serious danger of being lost. The badly-rotted wooden posts on which it sat have been replaced by concrete pillars, the collapsing sides have been straightened and strengthened, and new battens have been applied to make it weather-tight. The freight platform has been recreated, and the whole building has received a coat of paint. This has been a three-year job.”

In addition, the FEBT has stabilized the lumber shed behind the shops, manufactured and installed new window sash in several buildings, and volunteers continue restoration work on combine No. 14 and boxcar No. 955. In previous years, the volunteers have stabilized the shops building, restored several machines in the shops, acquired for preservation and restoration two EBT passenger cars sold off prior to the 1956 closure, saved the blacksmith shop from collapse, restored a ballast hopper car and generally cleaned up the entire shops area.

But what does all this mean to us in 2019? What happens to the EBT when Kovalchick, who is in his 80s, is no longer in the picture? Neither the federal nor the state government shows any interest in taking over the tourist operation. No one with deep pockets has emerged to buy it. Will the East Broad Top join the Rio Grande Southern, the Slim Princess, the Bridgton & Harrison and the rest of America’s narrow gauge panoply in fond memory?

22 thoughts on “East Broad Top still needs a savior NEWSWIRE

  1. It has been many a year since I saw and rode the EBT. It was back in 1957. It was off in the woods but, not as far as the Silverton or the C&TS is off the beaten path. What the EBT needs is an “attraction” like the HI-Line above the Rio Animas or the two bridges at Lobato or Cascade or the two tunnels of Mud and Rock or the sound of the Mikes working a good grade like climbing of 3% to Cumbres. People who have been there from all over the world never forget it once they have experienced it!
    My wife and I were members of the Narrow Gauge Railroad Association (NGRRA), the first Volunteer group that single handed, convinced the two States of CO and NM to buy the property from the D&RGW and then help with annual funding to keep it alive. Less than a hundred volunteers ” busted butt” every summer repairing, painting buildings, Locos, Cars both for the train and for historical preservation, restoring and rebuilding old boxcars into coaches for the public to ride in. We were not blessed like Charles Bradshaw was with the D&S with coaches available. We had the forsight to have a starting plan of using boxcars; plusvthe forsight to save the 6000 series flats for todays conversions to coaches. The State of Pennsylvania needs to buy the EBT and then help fund the restoration along with some National Corporation that wants to help with the restoration with out looking to line their own pockets. Then maybe the EBT would have a chance. Lengthen the run, at least through the tunnels and keep it authentic; resist the urge to Hollywoodize it or fancy things up. A good honest paint job does wonders! Let’s Pray that the state wakes up and the Volunteer group is willing to take the “Bull by the Horn’s” to get the job at least started. It can be done with time and effort. Just pray that the price of scrap does not outprice the cost of Preservation!
    Bill Luxford A former Editor of the NGRRA “Telltale” Newsletter and Former NGRRA Volunteer Car Attendant.

  2. In other parts of Pennsylvania, truly deserving projects have benefited from the charitable works of the William Penn Foundation. Yes, this piece of infrastructure is a bit remote compared with some others. But it’s also in a part of the state where economic development can help to address rural deprivation. I have travelled on this line, and what I most recall (alongside the character of the locos) was the amazing scent of a late spring day from the wildflowers and trees along the route. The railroad is a real treasure and with each year of “progress” that goes by it becomes more so. I urge the current leaders to reach out to trusts and local governments to put the railroad back on the map and deliver the wider benefits of rural development.

  3. In my opinion, EBT is the biggest unsaved preservation project in America — no matter what the category. The numbers to be successful are there: So close to half the population in the U.S.

  4. As a classmate of Mr. Kovalchick I can state that he is not in his 80’s. I applaud his family’s efforts to extend the life of the EBT and hope that will lead to a long term commitment,

  5. Having ridden the EBT God only knows how many times since childhood till it’s closure; the trip is about as scenic as most tourist railroads provide. There are mountains viewable from the train (not Rocky Mountains-like obviously) along with picturesque farms and streams. When I was a kid; we’d frequently make use of the picnic area at Colgate Grove. And I admit times – and our sources for “entertainment” – were simpler then.

    While the area is somewhat remote; it does have what I’d characterize as useful proximity to Raystown Lake which draws a substantial number of visitors from Spring through Fall.

    The drive to reach Orbisonia is a pretty one (especially in the Fall) whether coming from the PA Turnpike at Fort Littleton or from Mount Union via US 522.

    Whether the EBT can be a financially viable tourist business is questionable even to me. I suspect what it will take is another family like the Kovalchicks with deep pockets; a lot of patience; and an abiding interest in history.

  6. Warren Jenkins – As a life long Eastcoaster who has ridden the Mt. Washington Cog, Conway Scenic, Cape Cod & Hyannis, Cass and even Amtrak several times along the scenic east coast (plus many other Amtrak trains, Alaska Ultra Domes, White Pass & Yukon and even Mexico’s Copper Canyon), I stand by my statement that there isn’t enough there to attract a crowd.

  7. Richardf Andre, you look at Google Earth, and decide there’s nothing to it, meanwhile you ignore the history, locomotive fleet, the shops, etc.
    Your comment about the scenery tells me you are not in the East and are probably a left-coaster.
    You’re missing something all right.

  8. I’ve seen nothing in any comments here or on the Facebook component that tells me that anyone knows what to do about it. Perhaps this hobby doesn’t have any fresh ideas.

  9. Could the Cumbres and Toltec serve as a model for how to bring the railroad back to life? State ownership with contracted operation and Friends support? What would be the potential effect of running trains not just a few miles up and down the valley, but possibly all the way to Mt. Union and/or up the mountain to Robertsdale? A longer, more scenic ride might draw more visitors and associated revenue possibilities. But it would definitely cost a chunk of change to bring such ideas to reality.

  10. I could wrong, but right now, I don’t see a bright future, just some salvage companies and Developers reaping millions as the slice and dice the carcass.

  11. The railroad at it’s peak had about 33 miles of mainline track from Mt. Union, PA to Robertsdale, PA. When it reopened as a tourist railroad, only about 5 miles were used from Orbisonia to a wye where a picnic grove was added. The five miles were flat and fairly uninteresting. The more interesting mileage would be up the mountains through two tunnels to Robertsdale. Being in a rather out-of-the-way area in Pennsylvania doesn’t help patronage.

  12. I have never been there but checking it out on Google Earth there doesn’t seem to be much to the railroad itself. The ride looks like it would be very short and the scenery doesn’t look very interesting. Was there once more to it? Sorry but I don’t see how it would attract many passengers unless it could be extended somehow.

    I am surprised there is a successful trolley operation there. Maybe I’m missing something.

  13. The Cumbres and Toltec hadn’t sat idle that long before being reactivated. Most of the EBT right-of-way has sat idle for over 60 years. Bridges and the two tunnels most likely have deteriorated and would need costly repairs. The locomotives would need expensive 1472 overhauls–not to mention an 8 million purchase price up front. I don’t see anyone or any organization with that kind of money to spend to save this iconic railroad. Perhaps the best we could hope for in a few years after the current owner is out of the picture is that the heirs would sell for a reasonable price the portion from Orbisonia to the wye at the picnic grove along with a couple of engines to some organization that could resume operations as they formerly were. The other engines, right-of-way, land, etc. would then be sold piecemeal.

  14. As anyone bothered to speak to his children, especially since once the elder Kovalchick is no longer around the company will be theirs? Unless there’s a provision in his will that the property can only ever be sold intact there’s no telling what the heirs will do or want, and that is actually a bigger problem. Of course they could always get it appraised and then donate it to the FEBT. As for the price tag, in today’s world 8 million(though more than most of us have) isn’t a princely sum, but the cost of rehab is another thing entirely.

  15. This situation with the East Broad Top is heartbreaking. Oh to hit it big in the lottery and have the wherewithal to purchase and rehab this gem.

    David; I’ll join you in saying thank you to the Kovalchick family for saving the EBT and operating it as long as they did.

  16. It has been bantered about ad nauseum about federal or state involvement. As a former Park Service ranger I can attest that any fan of the EBT does not want government involvement. It would be disasterous. I have seen many over the years come into the picture to offer wonderful plans without the resources or moral integrity to pull it together. Some have been sincere and others charlatans. Someone with ‘Deep pockets’ and a non-profit group with a viable and dedicated long term plan is the only solution, and that’s IF Mr Kovalchick sells to them. I’d like to thank the Kovalchick family for their ownership and decades of memories, for without them the EBT would have been long since gone. We can only hope and pray for its future.

  17. I was just there, for the first time, early this month, to ride the trolley. So sad to see everything there just as it was so long ago. Here’s an idea . . . why not extend the trolley up to the Orbisonia station? Though that might not be possible with the track arrangement.

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