News & Reviews News Wire Top 10 stories of 2023, No. 5: East Broad Top returns to steam

Top 10 stories of 2023, No. 5: East Broad Top returns to steam

By Dan Cupper | December 27, 2023

Record ridership, big year for Friends group also part of railroad's continued growth

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Steam locomotive with four passenger cars and caboose
EBT Mikado No. 16 and train cross Runk Road bridge at the north end of the Long Fill near Shirleysburg, Pa., on Feb. 18, the first day of the 2023 Winter Spectacular. Dan Cupper

ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. — It was a breakout year for the East Broad Top narrow-gauge line in central Pennsylvania, already the Cinderella story of American steam railroads.

Since its opening in 1873 as a 33-mile-long, common-carrier coal and ore line based in Rockhill Furnace, Pa., EBT has been shut down twice and rescued twice. In 2020 it was bought by the non-profit EBT Foundation, Inc. Just three years later, it reached three major milestones.

The biggest news came in returning to service in February 2-8-2 Mikado engine No. 16 (Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1916), dormant for 67 years since the line closed in 1956. Making its debut at the 2023 Winter Spectacular railfan photo event, No. 16 was restored under the direction of EBT Master Mechanic Dave Domitrovich. He was coached by his former mentor at the Strasburg Rail Road, EBT Foundation board member Linn Moedinger, who is retired as SRC president and chief mechanical officer.

During the year, EBT ran more than 400 trains on some 140 revenue days, including eight photo charters and a handful of other private events. No. 16 missed only two trips, for a broken pilot-truck leaf spring. GE diesel M-7 stepped in while Domitrovich and his crew made the repair, letting the steamer get back to work in a matter of a few hours.

The M-7 also pinch-hit on seven days when No. 16 was in for scheduled maintenance. “That was instilled in me by Linn,” said Domitrovich. “People came to Strasburg to see steam run; they don’t want to see a diesel. That’s why we were so transparent — if it was down for a monthly inspection, or a 90-day [inspection], we advertised that months in advance so people wouldn’t be disappointed.”

The next engine EBT plans to restore is No. 15, the last one to run before the 2011 closure.

Record ridership, new trackage

Large crowds line up in front of train station as steam locomotive prepares to move
Passengers wait for No. 16 to couple onto the road’s new coaches. With the return of steam, the EBT set a ridership record. Dan Cupper

No. 16’s reliability enabled EBT to notch its second major achievement, carrying 35,000 passengers and topping the 28,000-rider peak (in 1962) of the tourist-era years.

“In a few short years, we brought the EBT back to not only what it was before the [2011] closure, but we smashed the previous ridership record out of the water,” said Jonathan Smith, sales and marketing director. “We exceeded our goal for the year, and this is just the start.”

The railroad also doubled the number of people touring the circa-1900, belt-driven shop complex and adjacent eight-stall roundhouse, Smith said, with 5,000 in 2023. In addition, he said, EBT introduced combo tickets, bundling a train ride, shop tour, and ride on the adjacent Rockhill Trolley Museum. EBT also carried all 500 students in grades K-5 from all three elementary schools in southern Huntingdon County.

Less obvious but also significant, EBT’s third milestone was reopening the first several hundred feet of main line south toward the rugged coal-mining region that once provided EBT’s tonnage. Inactive since 1956, the 20-some miles of track pass over a 275-foot-long steel trestle, swing around a horseshoe curve and pass through two tunnels, climbing 2.6% grades. Work is carried out by a combined Foundation track crew and Friends of the East Broad Top volunteers. Eventually, the Foundation hopes to reopen all 27 miles of main line it owns.

‘Friends’ had a good year, too

With 2,085 members, the Friends support group notched a banner year in fund-raising to fuel its various projects. These include continuing work to stabilize and restore the Rockhill shop complex and a few vintage freight and passenger cars; working with the full-time track crew to maintain existing track and extend operations; supporting the ongoing EBT Archives project; and staff and operate a museum and depot at Robertsdale, including offering handcar and railbike rides and tours of abandoned mining ruins.

The group closed its $180,000 campaign for 2023 at $270,775 (150%). It set a record goal for 2024 of $220,000, with funding earmarked — among other projects — for starting to rebuild the razed station at Saltillo on the inactive main line, and fabricating a new tender tank for engine No. 15.

Coming: Extended shop tours

East Broad Top shop with machines powered with steam via leather belts
East Broad Top Railroad’s legendary machine shop in 2009. Alex Mayes

Among the most important additions coming up, said General Manager Brad Esposito, is a 3- to 4-hour tour to offer an immersive look at the machine shop, car shop, foundry, and other buildings in the complex.

“We’re looking to be able to show off the details of all the buildings that have been stabilized,” he said. “Our plan is to go through each of the buildings and explain things and do demonstrations [such as] live riveting demonstrations, where we repair hopper cars.

“The car shop [represents] the whole story that we can tell, to give a better idea of how they did things with the wood-car fleet, the steel-car fleets – how they did wheel work, [formed] the side sheets, building a car. We’ll be able to say, ‘In 1923 this car was built in this exact shop.’ The fabric is there.

“There’s no other railroad you can go to and see the whole process,” Esposito said. “EBT is a miniature version of the [Pennsylvania Railroad’s] Juniata Shops” in Altoona, Pa.

Previous News Wire coverage:

“East Broad Top steam returns to revenue service,” Feb. 20, 2023. (Video: “East Broad Top No. 16 Debut,” Feb. 23, 2023).

“EBT opens its first steam-powered season in 12 years,” May 7, 2023.

“EBT wins $10,000 federal grant to preserve archives,” Sept. 25, 2023.

“EBT No. 16 rolls onto newly reopened track,” Oct. 10, 2023.

“Friends of East Broad Top picks up pace,” Oct. 11, 2023.

Coming Thursday: Top 10 story No. 4.

5 thoughts on “Top 10 stories of 2023, No. 5: East Broad Top returns to steam

  1. My friend and I took the offered tour through the buildings and all the shops in the summer of 2022. It was really impressive. I do agree it that it was an opportunity to imagine what the Altoona PRR shops would have been doing on a much, much larger scale in their “glory” days. I believe any rail fan that goes to the EBT without taking the grand tour is missing out on a great experience.

  2. As I have said before, imagine if every Trains subscriber donated $5.00 to the EBT. Just $5.00. Even if it were $1.00, the EBT would have an additional $90,000.00 or so.
    If you are interested in the continued expansion of EBT track, consider donating or, as Mr. Pinckney suggested, joining the Friends of the EBT.

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