East Broad Top Railroad Pre 2020
The East Broad Top Railroad was a narrow gauge short-line coal-hauling railroad in rural central Pennsylvania that went out of business as a commercial hauler in 1956. Amazingly, it has remained nearly totally intact since then with all of its six steam locomotives, 33 mainline track miles, and rolling stock still in place. The roundhouse, yard, and station are also still there in Rockhill Furnace, outside Orbisonia PA, along with the entire maintenance shop. Its original operating charter from 1874 still stands too.
Rather than being a collection of railroad parts from various places as most railroad tourist operations and museums are, the East Broad Top is most notable for being the entire railroad, complete and original down to every rail and spike. It is also notable for being built as a narrow gauge and always remained so; it is an uncommon three feet between the rails and the only original narrow gauge railroad left east of the Mississippi River.
The railroad began operations in 1876. It was greatly improved with a large investment in the early part of the 1900s with larger locomotives, a bigger machine shop to make it self-sufficient, and a large fleet of steel hopper cars built on site among other things. From the 1920s on as the fortunes of coal declined, the East Broad Top stayed roughly the same until closing, so the railroad truly is a time capsule of the industrial age of the 1910s and 1920s.
As a result, today the EBT is an unusual fully intact railroading example of the industrial age heyday in this country. It is truly one of a kind; this doesn’t exist anywhere else. Being a complete Victorian-era industrial artifact, it’s a direct throwback to the time when the Pennsylvania and overall US economy was largely based on resource extraction.
During its time as a revenue carrier, the East Broad Top used steam locomotives to haul most of the things that built this country. It pulled trains of coal, iron ore, finished pig iron, gannister used in firebrick making, and timber along with agricultural goods. The railroad also hauled another important resource: the people who worked in those industries. In short, it was the artery of development and sustenance through that section of rural Pennsylvania. It was listed on the National Historic Landmark in 1964 and rightfully so.
After closing in 1956, the little railroad was bought by the Kovalchic scrap company to be dismantled. However, the buyer left the railroad intact and operated a small part of the line as a tourist attraction. For decades since the 1960s, it hauled tourist passengers through the Summer and Fall over four and a half miles of restored track using the old steam locomotives.
The East Broad Top was partially operated that way until 2011 when the tourist excursions stopped and the railroad closed once again. Although many steam railroad enthusiasts and sightseers had come to see and ride the train, the revenue wasn’t enough over time. The future of the entire railroad went into limbo again. The weeds grew and rust continued; time stood still once more.
During that time, the all-volunteer Friends of the East Broad Top that was formed in the 1980s still kept up with small restoration efforts on the Rockhill Furnace buildings and other things as they had always done, one piece at a time. Even though there was mostly stillness around the Rockhill Furnace yard, there was always a small heartbeat that could be heard. The little railroad waited for yet another chance.
Then in early 2020, the formation of the non-profit EBT Foundation was announced and a complete turnaround for the better was started. The Kovalchic family gracefully donated the railroad to the Foundation and now being a non-profit, grant money could begin to flow. Finally well-funded, real restoration progress started in partnership with the Friends of the East Broad Top.
Since then big things have happened. One locomotive, #16, was completely rebuilt to run steam excursion trains once more with the other locomotives slated for their own full restoration as well. The original tourist track mileage was rebuilt and the picnic area at Colgate Grove was restored with new buildings. Rockhill Yard was cleaned up and some trackage was relaid there as well.
Further, four brand new passenger cars were bought, modern steel recreations of 1920s period cars. The sagging wooden shop complex buildings were stabilized and some of the large machines inside were brought back to life, along with the overhead belt system that powered them. Today, some of those old machines are still put to use in making things for the restoration efforts.
Another major improvement from new funding was the hiring of permanent staff, including steam engine experts, archivists, and a track crew. But even as important as those people are to the effort, a tourist operations staff was hired. They’ve been able to present the railroad to the world digitally using social media and a new website, eastbroadtop.com. The word is out and being promoted in a modern way.
Against all odds, the little narrow gauge railroad has survived through time and some serious rough patches. The East Broad Top really shouldn’t be here at all after more than 140 years. But now with the advent of the EBT Foundation, the little railroad is clearly aligned to become something big in railroad tourism. People will be coming from around the world to see it and have fun doing it.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed photographing the East Broad Top over the years. This gallery collection shows the pre-2020 pictures that were created through the first tourism era, showing some of the operations. But more importantly, they show the condition of the railroad and the facilities before the coming of the EBT Foundation in 2020 as well as through the shutdown years 2011 through 2020.
Pictures from the modern Foundation restoration era beginning in 2020 are in another gallery here called East Broad Top Railroad Modern Era; just follow the link.
These railroad pictures are available on super high gloss laminate, canvas, and matted paper prints with free shipping to the USA. ~Andy