Hidden History: Inside the East Broad Top Railroad
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.