Inside the East Broad Top Railroad in Orbisonia, Pennsylvanai

Hidden History: Inside the East Broad Top Railroad

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Pennsylvania is a state filled with great railroad history, from the first steam locomotive to operate in America, to the Horseshoe Curve and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today, many excursion railroads and railroad museums continue to maintain that tradition throughout the state.

One of the most fascinating excursion railroads in Pennsylvania was the East Broad Top Railroad. The East Broad Top Railroad was chartered in 1856, but due to financial issues and the Civil War, the process of building the railroad did not start until 1867. Finally, in August 1873, the railroad began operating, first from Mount Union to Orbisonia, and then, in November 1874 to Robertsdale.

East Broad Top Railroad in Rockhill, PA

An early 20th century steam engine sits at the East Broad Top Railroad.

The primary function of the East Broad Top was to carry coal from the mines in the Broad Top Mountain Plateau to the Pennsylvania Railroad line in Mount Union. The railroad also carried passengers and the mail, as well as providing a commuting line for coal miners.

Inside the East Broad Top Railroad.

Inside the East Broad Top Railroad.

The coal in Broad Top Mountain was known for burning especially clean, which made it a popular choice for the fire brick plants in Mount Union and to burn in ships during World War II.

Coal hopper from East Broad Top Railroad

A coal hopper used by the East Broad Top Railroad.

The East Broad Top Railroad was a narrow-gauge railroad which allowed it to take tighter corners while traveling up the mountainside to the coal mines and use less materials in construction of the tracks. It was the only narrow-gauge railroad in the country to use all-steel railcars.

In the early 1900s, the East Broad Top underwent a major modernization effort, bringing in new steam engines, railcars, and upgrading its machine shop to help build and maintain their equipment. Much of what can be seen today was part of that revitalization.

Visiting the East Broad Top Railroad in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania

Old railroad equipment sits outside at the East Broad Top.

The East Broad Top Railroad would remain an operating railroad until 1956. When the coal mines were forced to close due to demand and costs, the railroad also closed.

After the doors were shut, the railroad was sold to Kovalchick Salvage Corporation, who also bought the Kinzua Bridge in 1959. Nick Kovalchick, the company’s president, opted not to scrap the railroad immediately.

Roundhouse at the East Broad Top Railroad

The roundhouse at the East Broad Top Railroad.

In 1960, Rockhill and Orbisonia were celebrating their bicentennial and asked Kovalchick to put out a train for display. Deciding to go above and beyond, he opted to run the first excursion trips on the East Broad Top Railroad in August of 1960.

Rusting Tools at the East Broad Top in Pennsylvania

Rusting tools at the railroad.

Beginning the next summer, the East Broad Top Railroad would take visitors on excursions along the railroad’s old route. Excursions on the railroad ran every year until December 2011 when operations shut down.

Ads for the East Broad Top Railroad in Rockhill, Pennsylvania

An old advertisement for the East Broad Top.

Currently, the railroad is frozen in time awaiting a new buyer to once again bring the East Broad Top Railroad back to life. Currently, the Friends of the East Broad Top work to maintain things as best they can. Major projects include stabilizing the buildings, especially the machine shop, and rebuilding on the the railroad’s passenger cars.

History of the East Broad Top Railroad near Huntingdon, PA

There’s a lot of amazing history at the East Broad Top.

I recently had a chance to explore the East Broad Top Railroad’s roundhouse, machine shop, and grounds. Amazingly, despite the railroad’s main operations being closed for more than 60 years, the pieces that were on site when it closed are still located in Rockhill, PA.

This creates a time capsule of what an early 20th century railroad would have been like with all of the engines, railcars, and machinery necessary to run it.

A steam locomotive at the East Broad Top Railroad

A closeup of the a steam locomotive.

The roundhouse was built in 1882, making it one of the oldest, still-in-use roundhouses in the country. Inside are six steam locomotives that date back as far as 1911. These massive engines are incredibly impressive to see up close, and its fascinating to learn about their history and how innovations allowed them to work on such a narrow track.

Inside, visitors can also see 1927 gas-electric railcar that was used to haul both mail and passengers along the railroad’s 33 miles of track.

Train at the EBT in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania

The front of the gas/electric engine at the East Broad Top.

The railroad’s machine shop is another piece of fascinating history. Inside, many of the tools date back to the early 20th century and showcase what was required to build and maintain a functioning railroad at this time.

Machine shop at the East Broad Top Railroad.

A look inside the machine shop at the East Broad Top Railroad.

Each machine was run by an overhead belt system, which itself was powered by coal-burning furnaces that are still on-site. While this system no longer works, it still looks fairly intact, which offers a great glimpse into how this machine shop used to operate.

Inside the machine shop at the East Broad Top Railroad

There’s a lot of historical intricacies inside the machine shop.

The intricacy of each piece of machinery in the shop really gives you a great appreciation into the skill required to make these machines a century ago. It’s truly amazing how solidly each piece is built.

The Machine Shop at East Broad Top Railroad

Gauges inside the machine shop.

The grounds of the East Broad Top Railroad consist of several other buildings, many of which are sadly unsafe to enter, but are fascinating to see while peering through the windows.

East Broad Top Railroad

There are many historical buildings at the East Broad Top Railroad.

Outside of the roundhouse is the railroad’s turntable. Despite being decades old, this turntable still works. I’m even told that it’s so well balanced, that a single person could turn it with a large steam locomotive sitting on the turntable.

The turntable at the East Broad Top Railroad.

The turntable at the East Broad Top Railroad.

Overall, the East Broad Top Railroad is an amazing glimpse into the history of railroading in Pennsylvania. While other railroad museums and excursion railroads in Pennsylvania feature trains cars from various places, the East Broad Top is a time capsule of what a railroad was like decades ago.

Roundhouse at the EBT in Huntingdon County, PA

Another look inside the roundhouse.

Hopefully someday soon, the East Broad Top Railroad will come to life again and take visitors on a ride through the Huntingdon County countryside.

Those wishing to see inside can join me for a photography workshop or can take one of the in-depth railroading tours offered by the Friends of the East Broad Top. (Note that these in-depth tours are designed for those wanting to learn about the history of the railroad, not specifically for photographers.) Otherwise, the buildings and the grounds are sadly closed to the public.

In the meantime, visiting the Rockhill Trolley Museum next door, see St. Mary’s Covered Bridge, visit Trough Creek State Park, or explore Raystown Lake.

Explore more Hidden History in Pennsylvania at the Cambria Iron Works, Abandoned Trolley Graveyard, and the J.W. Cooper School.

Hidden History is a series that explores historical sites that are off limits to the general public. If you own a property in PA that would be a good fit, feel free to contact me.

Inside the East Broad Top Railroad in Rockhill, Pennsylvanai

AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

Jim Cheney is the creator of Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited, written about, and photographed all 67 counties in the state. He has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.


  • Lee Rainey, Friends of the EBT

    Multiple contemporary articles in the local newspapers confirm the roundhouse was actually built in 1874 — so it is even more notable (by a few years) than your superb article indicates !

    • Jim Cheney

      Do you have any sources for this? The 1884 date was pulled from a notation on the Library of Congress’ website that indicated the current structure replaced a wooden roundhouse built in 1774.

  • Barbara Dauber

    My children were on Vacation in Mount Union last summer. They visited a place called 1000 Steps, I couldn’t find it on this website. I did find another article on it. I have an interest in the area because our family hails from the area.
    I think a border of Fort Shirley is a stone’s throw from my cousin’s house on Green Street in Shirleysburg.
    My Grandfather worked as the coal tipper on the East Broadtop RR. in Rock Hill. I rode it when it was in operation. We went from Shirleysburg to Satillo . I was really little. We rode in the caboose. You could see through the cracks in the flooring and see the railroad ties pass as the train moved along.

  • Judi Norris Booher

    I miss hearing it’s whistle, I didn’t realize the depth of it’s history until I began trying to do a series of paintings that will hang in Bricktown Museum, one of how Mount Union looked in 1907, the second one of #7 ‘Aughwick’ and the third I’m in the process of that I call ‘Final run of third#3’ in my 3 Set Series called Trains…two are 24″x 18″ and one is a 16″x 20″…my Grandfather used to work at North American Brickyard, I got to see, inside the process of how the bricks were made…I was fascinated as a child to witness a part of MU History, which is my Hometown, I rode EBT 2 times in my life, once as a tiny child, and the last time a few years before she became silent…it’s sad to see that no place were we EVER taught our own towns history…I only knew a smidge, from life as I grew up in the countryside, around the areas of this great town I knew as my Hometown…THAT has been my motivation in painting something I don’t normally paint, HISTORY…it took a great deal of research to learn what was when…but I hope all who see my contribution to it’s being, my work will show it mattered!!!

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