Introduction: The Last Coal Road

 

1. Introduction 4. Resources
2. Steam Along the Aughwick 5. Acknowledgements
3. Links 6. Terms of Use

 


 

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EBT Mikado #14
pauses on the wye
at Colgate Grove.


NOTE:
Click on
thumbnails to
enlarge images.

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.

 

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Mike #14 backs
out of the
Rockhill Furnace
roundhouse.

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.

 

For the next four years, the EBT slumbered. Nothing was sold off, moved, or destroyed—the 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.

 

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Vintage freight
cars and shop
buildings in the
Rockhill Furnace
yards
So 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An EBT excursion
train stands ready
at the Orbisonia
depot: but for
how much longer?

Today, 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 infrastructure—the roundhouse, belt-driven machine shop, boiler shop, rolling stock, tools and parts—which 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.

 

Gloomy 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.

 


 

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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1999 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.