|Introduction: The Last Coal Road|
|1. Introduction||4. Resources|
|2. Steam Along the Aughwick||5. Acknowledgements|
EBT Mikado #14
pauses on the wye
at Colgate Grove.
NOTE: Click on
The East Broad Top Railroad is nothing if not a survivor. Following its completion from Mt. Union to Robertsdale in 1874, the EBT spent its first 80 years conveying semi-bituminous coal from the rich veins of Pennsylvania's Broad Top field to a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad. A typical mine road, EBT's fortunes waxed and waned with those of its parent industry. In the good years, wages filled the miners' pockets and an endless parade of hoppers clattered from the mineheads at Robertsdale, Woodvale, and Jacobs down to the great mixing and sorting bins at Mount Union. In the bad years, like the grim strike year of 1927, the hoppers lay silent in the yards as the miners and the Rockhill Coal and Iron Company's private police faced each other down in the streets of the company towns.
In all this EBT was typical of dozens of other coal railroads in America's Appalachian mining district. However, one feature set the EBT apart: its 3' gauge. Depending on one's point of view, it was the EBT's grace or misfortune to have been conceived just as the world-wide narrow-gauge craze of the 1870s was reaching its fever pitch. Bedazzled by the blandishments of narrow-gauge advocates like Robert Fairlie and William Jackson Palmer, the EBT's backers adopted the 3' gauge for their new railroad. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late for the EBT to reconsider its decision. Making a virtue of necessity, they built impressive coal washing and sorting facilities at the break-of-gauge point at Mt. Union. Narrow-gauge EBT hoppers dumped their loads into one end of the facility and standard-gauge PRR cars received cleaned and graded coal at the other, adding some economic value to the necessary transshipment. And so the line soldiered on, a slim-gauge carrier in a standard-gauge world.
Mike #14 backs
out of the
Narrow gauge or not, the East Broad Top returned to its owners a decent rent on their money up to and through World War II. After the war, however, new open-pit mines in the American west made sudden inroads upon the eastern coal producers' markets. Taken aback by the onslaught, the remaining mine owners in the EBT's territory either shuttered their doors, or turned to more flexible highway trucks to delivery their commodity. In 1955, the EBT's owners acceded to the inevitable and filed for abandonment. The last train ran in April 1956.
next four years, the EBT slumbered. Nothing
was sold off, moved, or destroyedthe last crews simply dumped the fires, locked the
doors, and walked away. Even so, when the Rockhill Company's receivers sold the
property to Kovalchick Salvage Co., the largest scrap dealer in Pennsylvania, the little
road's fate seemed sealed. Yet new owner Nick Kovalchick had other ideas. 22 million
tons of coal still remained in the Rockhill Company's lands, and Kovalchick thought that
there might yet come a day when the coal would be valuable again, and he might want a
working railroad to move it. And so instead of scrapping the EBT, he let it lie just as
the employees had left it: a kind of railway in amber, preserved against a day of need.
cars and shop
buildings in the
matters stood until 1960, when the citizens
of Orbisonia approached Kovalchick with an idea: would he consider letting a train run to
help the town celebrate its bicentennial? Nick agreed, and in short order EBT #12
re-emerged from the Rockhill Furnace roundhouse to resume her duties. Rechristened
"Millie" to honor the owner's daughter, the trim Mike was soon back at work
hauling capacity trains of tourists up and down 3.5 miles of reconditioned track. Pleased
with the experiment, Kovalchick consented to an extension the next year, and the year
after that, and so on right down to the present.
the EBT faces an uncertain future. In
saving the entire railroad and making a portion of it available for summer excursions, the
Kovalchick family has undertaken a four-decade-long act of private industrial preservation
unique in the annals of philanthropy. Even so, it is unreasonable to expect them forever
to absorb the cost. As a complete, intact, turn-of-the-century industrial workplace,
the EBT is eminently worth of state or federal preservation, yet so far efforts to secure
an agreement between government agencies and the owners have been unavailing. Each year
brings the threat that the excursions may not be renewed; as bad or worse, each year sees
further damage to priceless infrastructurethe roundhouse, belt-driven machine shop,
boiler shop, rolling stock, tools and partswhich the Kovalchicks cannot
singlehandedly maintain. The final chapter has yet to be written, and the road may yet end
up in the hands of the scrappers.
prospects, indeed, but the worst has not yet
come to pass. The spring of 1999 has seen new hope as the Kovalchicks and the State of
Pennsylvania consider a proposal which would see the Rockhill Furnace shops placed in the
hands of a nonprofit trust which could receive state and federal funds for their
stabilization. And in any event, for this year at least, the EBT will still send its trim
Mikados forth to roam the scenic Aughwick valley. So join me now for a ride on the
East Broad Top-- the last narrow-gauge coal road in America.