ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. – The East Broad Top Railroad opened its first steam-powered season in 12 years with the return of regularly scheduled excursion trains for weekend operations Friday, May 5, through today, May 7.
EBT 2-8-2 engine No. 16 (Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1916) easily handled its six-car train. Freshly overhauled, the 81-ton engine broke in with runs during February’s Winter Spectacular railfan event and on a recent photo charter. But this was the first regularly scheduled steam excursion service since the narrow gauge line shut down in 2011 prior to its purchase eight years later by the non-profit EBT Foundation, Inc., and its subsequent restoration.
“[No. 16] runs better every time we take it out,” said EBT Master Mechanic Dave Domitrovich.
A National Historic Landmark, EBT consists of 27 miles of main line, six Baldwin Mikado steam locomotives, a fleet of historic and modern rolling stock, a circa-1900 machine-shop complex and roundhouse, and a station and general office. Opened in 1872, the line carried coal, lumber, and other products until 1956. Then it was purchased by the Kovalchick family and revived as a 4½-mile seasonal tourist railroad from 1960 to 2011. The Foundation bought it in 2020 with the intent of restoring as much of the 27-mile main line as possible.
The Foundation is aided in its goal by the nonprofit Friends of the East Broad Top, which provides financial grants for projects and archival work, and labor to maintain and restore buildings and track. It also operates a museum at Robertsdale, the southern end of the line.
Events and fond memories
Two events marked the weekend. One was the first regular-season use of a handicapped-accessible lift on combine car 17, delivered earlier this year as one of four new-built, roller-bearing-equipped passenger cars. The first paying rider taking advantage of this was Bill Metzger, 76, of Confluence, Pa., a photographer, writer, author and longtime, now retired, Trains Magazine cartographer. He created the centerspread system map for Kalmbach’s recent special publication, East Broad Top: Steam Treasure of the East. But his roots with the short line reach much deeper.
Metzger recalled his first encounter with the common-carrier-era EBT at age 7 or 8. During an early-’50s trip to a grandmother’s house, his parents stopped the car when an EBT train passed the U.S. Route 522 grade crossing in Shirleysburg. A few years later, on Oct. 11, 1960, his 14th birthday, he visited the road’s Rockhill Furnace shops and yard just two months after the line reopened as a tourist carrier. His reaction was twofold, he told News Wire: “This is so … cool” and “This is not going to last.”
The context of the ’50s and ’60s, he explained, was: “We were losing everything — steam engines, passenger trains, short lines, everything.”
EBT wasn’t running that day, but he wandered into the shops and an employee named Dick Clark kindly showed him around, serving as an impromptu tour guide.
From then on, Metzger closely followed the EBT’s story. “It was a marvelous thing, that it was family owned for 60 years,” he said. “I got to shake Joe Kovalchick’s hand.” Kovalchick, now a Foundation board member, is the son of scrap dealer Nick Kovalchick, who saved the railroad for the first time in 1956.
Like hundreds of EBT admirers, Metzger was anguished at the 2011 closure. But eight years later, when the Foundation was formed to buy and restore the line, his emotions did an about-face. “When they announced they were going to do this, I was giddy,” he said. “My God, this is unbelievable. It’s still there. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”
On the first run of the 2023 season, Metzger reconnected with an old friend, Henry Posner III, now EBT Foundation president. They’d met in a hobby shop in Pittsburgh when Posner — an entrepreneur who now runs a worldwide railroad consortium — was just a high-schooler.
Posner said: “It was an honor for me to be with an almost lifelong friend, Bill Metzger, where he was the first revenue passenger to use our wheelchair lift in the combine.”
Also taking place during the weekend was the unveiling of an oil painting by J. Craig Thorpe, “Back at Work,” showing the recently restored No. 16 with the road’s 1927 gas-electric car M-1. It was commissioned and funded by railroad and interurban historian Bob Alkire of Rockford, Ill., with all poster-print proceeds supporting the Foundation.
In an interview with News Wire, General Manager Brad Esposito said that with the return of steam, the acquisition of the four new coaches, and the level of advance bookings, he forecasts a good year. He gave an update on several continuing EBT projects:
— The Colgate Grove picnic area at the current wye and north end of operable track is expected to reopen by the end of this month, with the arrival of picnic tables to complement two recently constructed pavilion shelters. With the old facilities razed, trains no longer discharge or board passengers there, but the railroad has had many requests to reinstate that option.
— A water-supply and fire-suppression system to protect the historic shops and roundhouse is about two-thirds completed, and within two months, EBT expects to be able to speed up replenishing locomotives with water, cutting the time from 20 or 30 minutes to 10 minutes. Yet to be completed are placement of liners for EBT’s two ponds and installation of pumps under the road’s coal dock at the south end of Rockhill Yard. Repairs to the coal chutes at the dock are in the works.
— Restoration of the disused main line south of Rockhill toward Pogue, 3 miles, will continue this summer, with the goal of strengthening the existing track to the Route 475 crossing to allow full train weight, and reaching the Route 994 crossing with interim work (every third tie, to allow work trains and speeders) by the end of the 2023 work season. Clearing brush, setting aside existing rail, installing ballast, placing ties, and replacing and respiking rail is handled by a joint team composed of Foundation staff and Friends volunteers, guided by crew chief Gene Tucker. The crew recently renovated Rockhill Yard trackage in front of the station/general office. Repairs to the 275-foot-long steel truss bridge at Pogue will begin as soon as a state environmental permit process is cleared.
— EBT plans to add once-a-month extended shop tours of as much as 2-3 hours to augment the regular hour-long shop tours now offered. This, Esposito said, would give “a good overview of what the railroad did, as opposed to [just] saying ‘here it is.’” Also under consideration are regular hostler tours, which have proven to be popular during special events such as the railroad’s annual Winter Spectacular.
— Restoration of a Pennsylvania Railroad Class X29 boxcar is planned for this summer. EBT acquired it to represent the railroad’s ability, starting in the 1930s, to swap narrow-gauge trucks under standard-gauge cars to avoid the costs and delays of transloading, which was the downfall of most American narrow gauge railroads.