Part one of a two-part update on the East Broad Top Railroad
ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. — For the first time since 1956, the narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad ran a steam locomotive over a newly restored portion of main line south of this town, signaling the railroad’s intent to reopen all of its 20-mile route to the former coalfields that once provided its reason for existence. This is among the highlights of our East Broad Top Railroad update.
The occasion was last weekend’s Friends of the East Broad Top annual fall reunion featuring extra trains, shop tours, meetings, contests, and other events.
A National Historic Landmark, the 33-mile-long EBT carried coal, ore, and lumber from 1874 to 1956, then reopened 4½ miles as a seasonal steam tourist road from 1960 to 2011. After it lay dormant for 8 years, the nonprofit EBT Foundation, Inc. bought it in 2020 from the Kovalchick family to preserve, restore, and operate it for educational and historical purposes.
On Oct. 7, EBT ran its first train of the day — a photo freight — north to the traditional tourist-era destination, a wye and picnic area at Colgate Grove, then returned to Rockhill before continuing south in rainy weather to the new track. Lying beyond the railroad’s coal dock at the end of Rockhill yard, the stretch extends for only a few hundred yards, but symbolizes the Foundation’s aim to fully restore EBT’s steep climb to Robertsdale, Pa., on 2% grades through two tunnels. (The same freight movement was repeated Oct. 8, this time in sunny, dry weather.)
Powering the train was EBT No. 16 (Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1916), the first of six Baldwin 2-8-2 engines the railroad intends to eventually restore to operation. This effort is the so-called “March to Saltillo,” with the 8 miles of track to that town representing the first target for reopening.
“We will get all the way to Broad Top Mountain,” Henry Posner III, president of the Foundation, promised the assembled Friends later that day. “The important thing is that we do it in your lifetimes.” He thanked the group for the significant boost it has given, both financially and in volunteer time at Rockhill, Robertsdale, and in between.
Help from the Friends
In its 2023 campaign, Andy Van Scyoc, FEBT president, says the group raised 150% of its $180,000 goal, taking in $270,725. In addition, 138 of its members performed 7,500 hours of work, as follows:
- Rolling stock: Work on wooden combine No. 14 and steel boxcar No. 174 moved closer to completion.
- Buildings: New roofs installed on Rockhill locomotive shop and boiler shop, restoration of car-shop doors, work on storehouse/lean-to, Robertsdale station roof work, museum open to the public every Saturday that the railroad operated, and the museum library was opened.
- Track: 300 ties inserted in main line south of Rockhill, 700 ties inserted in Rockhill yard tracks, making virtually all of them passable for the first time since 1956, and clearing of brush on the right-of-way to the village of Pogue, 3 miles south of Rockhill.
- Archives: More than 1,100 new images added to the publicly available database, doubling the number that were available when the online project began a year ago under the guidance of archivist Julie Rockwell. Her work is jointly funded by the Foundation and the Friends, and the project recently won a National Endowment for the Humanities federal grant [see, “EBT wins $10,000 federal grant to preserve archives,” News Wire, Sept. 25, 2023].
“Now we’re over the first hurdle [of getting a steam engine restored to resume passenger operations over the 4½-mile tourist-era line]” says Brad Esposito, EBT general manager. “It’s time to do bigger and better things.”
Under the direction of Dave Domitrovich, EBT master mechanic, the railroad restored No. 16, a 1916 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado, placing it in service in February for the annual Winter Spectacular event and entering regular day-to-day tourist passenger service in the spring [see “East Broad Top steam returns to revenue service,” News Wire, Feb. 20, 2023]. Since 2021, EBT had offered public rides behind a diesel locomotive.
Together with FEBT board member Linn Moedinger, retired president and CMO of the Strasburg Rail Road, Domitrovich detailed the performance of No. 16 and impending work on No. 15, another Baldwin 2-8-2 built 1914.
As of last weekend, Domitrovich said, No. 16 put in 118 service days this year, running 5 days a week during the peak tourist season. It lost just one day that was attributable to a mechanical issue, a broken spring in the lead truck that was repaired the same day. Early work has begun to reactivate No. 15. New driver centers for the locomotive are already on hand.
Esposito reported that a dual-purpose water system is nearing completion, providing water from two EBT-owned ponds to restored standpipes from which steam-engine tenders will be replenished. After new pumps are delivered, water from the same source will be directed into piping to supply a fire-suppression system that has been installed to protect the 1900-era shop complex.
He noted that EBT is preparing to solicit bids in December for contractors to strengthen the 268-foot-long mainline steel truss bridge at Pogue, 3 miles south of Rockhill. The largest bridge on the railroad, it is in good shape for its age but requires pier and bearing work, new bridge timbers, and relaying the rails.
The Foundation’s full-time track crew is working with volunteers to clear brush and trees, remove trash, and rotted ties from line leading to Pogue. Work has been completed on 2 of 3 miles in the segment. This track will next receive fresh ties, proper rail spiking, and stone ballast. The Friends have allocated $40,000 to this work for 2024.
Esposito added that he and other staff are meeting with local and state officials preparing for the resumption of service to towns that haven’t seen a train in 67 years. This includes contact with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to negotiate reopening highway grade crossings. The biggest logistical issue with crossings, he said, is the complicated task of arranging road-traffic detours while work is under way, including the need to avoid disrupting school-bus routes and schedules.
Another improvement that took place earlier this season was the building of new picnic facilities at Colgate Grove in response to visitor requests [see “Coming at East Broad Top: the new Colgate Grove,” News Wire, Nov. 7, 2022]. Families once routinely left the train, ate a picnic lunch, and returned on a later run. Funded by corporate donations, the new facilities replaced shelters built in the 1960s that had fallen into disrepair.
For part two of the update, see “Friends of East Broad Top picks up pace,” News Wire, Oct. 11, 2023.