ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. — The narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad plans to celebrate 2022 as another milestone – the 150th anniversary of the start of construction in 1872 — with more track restoration and a return to steam-locomotive operation.
If 2020 was the year of a miraculous rebirth for the historic south-central Pennsylvania line, then 2021 built on that remarkable event with speedy rehabilitation of track and rolling stock, and the start-up of new programs.
A National Historic Landmark, the 33-mile railroad escaped dismemberment twice, once in 1956 when a scrap dealer bought it after common-carrier operations ended and revived a 4½-mile portion for steam tourist service 1960-2011, and again in 2020 when the Kovalchick family sold most of the property to EBT Foundation, Inc., a non-profit group backed by railroad industry leaders Bennett Levin, Wick Moorman, and Henry Posner III.
Foundation General Manager Brad Esposito said the most significant achievement of 2021 was resuming regularly scheduled passenger service, which began on June 11. “We put over 10,500 ties in and we have to credit the Friends of the East Broad Top because they’re such an integral part of what we do. We couldn’t do it without them. We made significant progress on the 16 (Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-8-2 engine, 1916) and are looking forward to rolling it out in 2022.” Also under restoration is engine No. 14 (1912), another of EBT’s stable of six Baldwin Mikados.
In 2021, EBT fielded its own staff of slightly more than a dozen full-time people and a handful of part-timers, with the volunteer help of the 1,600-member Friends group, which holds monthly work gatherings and even more frequent trackwork sessions.
The circa-1900 machine-shop complex at Rockhill Furnace, comprising more than a dozen buildings, once was threatened by decay and deterioration, but a collaboration of the railroad, the Friends, and a contractor brought the buildings to a state of stabilization in 2021. The complex is remarkably complete, with an overhead-shaft and belt-driven system of powering machine tools.
During the year, EBT hauled more than 11,000 passengers on 42 operating days, and conducted shop tours for 1,110 patrons. “The public response is amazing,” Esposito said, “and that’s with a diesel [locomotive]. Anticipation is building for next year with steam operations.”
He noted visitors are staying for three or four hours, taking in the train ride, the shop tour, and rides on the adjacent Rockhill Trolley Museum, which offers a 2-mile electric-railway round trip on part of the right-of-way of EBT’s former Shade Gap Branch. “We’ve been working with RTM in developing a visitor experience that is unique and both entertaining and informational,” Esposito said. “And we’ve also been working with the communities around the railroad.”
Another signal event, he said, was installation of the first components of a fire-suppression system that will protect the shop complex and eight-stall roundhouse. Including pumps and water supply that will be concealed inside EBT’s coal tipple, that system is expected to be completed in 2022.
Ramshackle picnic shelters at Colgate Grove were razed in 2021, with preparation work started for a new post-and-beam pavilion event venue. With restrooms and changing facilities, Esposito said, it will be a “sizable” structure designed not only for regular picnicking passengers but also weddings, arts festivals, concerts, and other entertainment events.
The Foundation has been successful in winning public and private grants for work on the shops, the picnic grove, the railroad’s 1926 Brill Co. gas-electric car, and extension of track north to the picnic grove and now, south toward the mountains that held the coal mines that supplied the lion’s share of EBT’s tonnage in common-carrier days.
“I can’t overemphasize working with the Friends,” said Esposito. In addition to supplying volunteer labor on the shops, rolling stock, and track, the volunteer group has helped fund the inauguration of an archives program. That project seeks to catalog and secure long-term protection and accessibility for several roomfuls of railroad and mining records dating to the 19th century. The Friends matched the Foundation’s initial funding to hire archivist Julie Rockwell and an aide in 2021, and that program will continue in 2022.
Pent-up enthusiasm for EBT has surfaced in the progress of Friends membership — which has doubled, to more than 1,600 since the Foundation bought the railroad. In addition, the Friends’ fund-raising campaign for 2021 exceeded its goal by raising $156,000, doubling the amount originally sought, and the 2022 campaign goal of $100,000 — only three months old — has already reached 86% of the goal.
Additional News Wire reading:
“East Broad Top notebook: Damaged bridge replaced …,” May 14, 2021.
“East Broad Top reopens for regular service …,” June 14, 2021.
“East Broad Top notebook: Work continues to restore steam locomotive …,” Aug. 21, 2021.
“East Broad Top fully reopens tourist-era line …,” Oct. 11, 2021.
“Friends of East Broad Top wraps up Rockhill shops work …,” Oct. 11, 2021.
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