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 the 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, though a new owner is once again bringing 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 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 it’s 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 for 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.
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.
12 thoughts on “Hidden History: Inside the East Broad Top Railroad”
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 !
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.
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.
The thousand steps is frequented by many when in the area.
This is very interesting, my husband grew up in Renovo. Pa. The Railroad built this town and brought with it jobs & posterity. John Robison was his name and his father worked for the Railroad, Martin Francis Robison, retired from there. John said it was the best place to grow up in b/c of the Railroad and all of the Community minded things the Railroad done for this town. John was a 1964 graduate from Renovo High.
I remember as a young boy growing up in Easton Pa. There was a round house that serviced locomotives. It was fun to watch them
move the engines on big turntables .
Rode so many times on the train at east broad top was fascinating .hope some one buys it and restores it sad to see it just sitting there idle. My parents and I would go every summer to ride it
This one definitely needs an update! The railroad was bought by a new non profit and large scale efforts to return it to tourist service are underway! There will be a handful of events and tours before that, as well as restoration work sessions by the Friends of the East Broad Top if people want to volunteer to help.
Once it gets up and running again, I’ll definitely give it an update.
Love these photos…thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to visit and have some photo fun!
Who were the people that literally laid the tracks of The East Broadtop Railroad? The Railroad Workers? Are there any records that establish who they were? What their wages were? What their lives were like back in the years after the Civil War?
What’s also very interesting is the story surrounding the financing for the Railroad that was delayed. If financing weren’t delayed, when would it have been constructed?
Is it not a mystery? Why is that?
The East Broad Top Railroad is up and running. The non-profit foundation that purchased the Railroad has made amazing progress. Go to https://eastbroadtop.com/ to get the full story. You will enjoy it.