End of the Line?

The storied East Broad Top may soon be derailed

A turntable leads to the roundhouse, where locomotives and other equipment are stored.

Credit: Cameron Davidson

One sunny October Sunday I arrived early at the East Broad Top Railroad's red-brick roundhouse, which is just off Meadow Street in Rockhill Furnace, Pa., some 75 miles west of Harrisburg. No. 15, a 94-year-old locomotive that now pulls almost all of the line's trains, was simmering just outside of her stall, surrounded by wisps of steam and the rich scents of coal smoke and hot engine oil. With coal hoppers lined up on a track east of the yard and the twin smokestacks of the railroad's shops rising against a backdrop of fall foliage, it was a scene barely changed since the late 1920s, when the little East Broad Top hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of coal down from the mines on Broad Top Mountain every year.

Beside the engine sat Tom Holder, the East Broad Top's longtime engineer, chatting with Ron Rabena, the hostler, whose job it is to come in at 2 a.m. and start the six-hour process of getting No. 15 steamed up. The first trip—since 1960 the East Broad Top has hauled tourists, rather than coal—was still two hours away, so there was plenty of time to talk.

Holder had just finished answering a question I'd been meaning to ask about how the train crew had recently replaced a broken spring on No. 15, when Stanley Hall, the East Broad Top's general manager, pulled up in his truck. The conversation turned quickly to the railroad's precarious future—a future that not even Hall can predict. He grew up alongside the railroad, and for the past 48 years has both worked for it and helped protect it, but now he says it's just about worn out. Although it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the engines and the cars need work, and revenue from ticket sales doesn't cover operating expenses, much less maintenance of aging structures that stretch from one end of the 33-mile line to the other.

Lately Joe Kovalchick, the owner, has made it clear that he's looking for "some sort of orderly transition." The Kovalchick family has owned the East Broad Top since 1956, when the last of the mines closed and Joe's father, Nick, a scrap and salvage dealer, purchased the line. Joe Kovalchick told me recently that he hopes the transition "would include the continuation of railroad operations," but beyond that, what might become of the East Broad Top—and what saving it might cost—is uncertain. Joe Kovalchick has a reputation as a hard bargainer who ­doesn't hesitate to walk away from a deal he decides he ­doesn't like, and several earlier preservation plans have produced nothing more than hard feelings and persistent rumors.

The East Broad Top is by every estimate a treasure, largely because it is so little changed. Although tourist trains run on only about five miles of track, the rest of the line is still there, its rails just discernible in the undergrowth. The roundhouse shelters six steam engines constructed by the Baldwin Locomotive Works between 1911 and 1920, plus a mint-condition 1927 self-propelled car with room for 12 passengers, mail, and package freight. The line's four passenger cars date from the 1880s, as does the shops complex, which is badly weathered and has structural problems but stands intact. Its machinery was powered by overhead belts connected to a stationary steam engine, and every lathe, wrench, and drill bit remains in place. The second floor of the 1906 station on Meadow Street still houses the complete personnel, property, and freight traffic records of the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Co., the firm that owned both the railroad and the coal mines it served.

"Unequivocally, everyone agrees this is a nationally important site," says Brenda Barrett, a former Pennsylvania historic preservation official who is now director of the state's Bureau of Recreation & Conservation. Linn Moedinger, a railroad-preservation and steam-operation expert who is president of the Strasburg Rail Road, in Strasburg, Pa., goes even further. "The East Broad Top in my opinion may well be the largest historic artifact in the United States," says Moedinger. "There may not be certain aspects that would pass museum white-glove standards, but there's more honest fabric, more historic essence, than just about any place I've been to. Six Baldwin engines that have known no other home? Excuse me, but it doesn't get any better than that."

I volunteer as a tour guide at the railroad, taking visitors through the shops, where the engines and cars were once maintained, and the roundhouse, where the engines are stored. Virtually everything in both buildings is right where it always was, which makes it easy to explain how the railroad worked—and still works. Last fall, for example, I often told visitors how the crew—tired and testy at the end of a hot summer Saturday—replaced the broken spring on No. 15. They jacked the 75-ton engine up enough to get the weight off the wheels, and then they went down into the long, grease-slicked pit underneath the locomotive to switch out the heavy, two-foot-long spring. I could show visitors the same spring on another engine and point out the locomotive jacks sitting by the back wall.

The East Broad Top—this is what you'd learn if you came for a tour—was built between 1872 and 1874 to haul iron ore and coal from deep underneath Broad Top Mountain. The main line stretches from a coal-mining hamlet called Alvan to the small city of Mount Union. The roundhouse and shops are located 10 miles south of Mount Union, in Rockhill Furnace, although the station stop here is called Orbisonia, after the slightly larger town on the far side of Blacklog Creek. Like many railroads of the 1870s and '80s, the East Broad Top was built as a narrow-gauge line—its rails are three feet apart, while standard gauge is four feet, eight and a half inches. Narrow-gauge railroads were cheaper to build because smaller locomotives could cross lighter bridges and negotiate tighter curves: Rather than require a tunnel through an obstacle, a narrow-gauge line could just go around it.

But narrow-gauge freight cars couldn't leave narrow-gauge tracks, so those railroads lost time and money transferring goods to and from standard-gauge cars. Eventually, transfer costs led most narrow gauges to switch to standard gauge, but not the East Broad Top. Eighty percent of its freight traffic was coal, which the narrow-gauge hoppers carried from the mines to a cleaning plant in Mount Union. There the coal was washed and graded, and a conveyor system loaded it directly into standard-gauge hopper cars provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Tracks serving the plant had three rails each, to accommodate both narrow- and standard-gauge cars, and the East Broad Top kept two standard-gauge engines in an engine house in Mount Union to move coal hoppers to and from the Pennsylvania (one engine is still there).

By the late 1950s, however, the coal market was changing irrevocably. Deep mines like those on Broad Top Mountain were closing as cheaper strip mining took hold. At the end of March 1956, the last of the mines served by the railroad shut down. The East Broad Top made its final run on April 13. Along with its sister coal company, the railroad was sold to the Kovalchick Salvage Co. for a price believed to be $850,000.

Hall, the general manager, was raised on a farm that the railroad crossed near the town of Three Springs. "It was a sad, sad day when you didn't look out and see that train going," he remembers, "and you didn't hear that steam whistle at 5:30 in the evening coming up the hollow."

What happened next was extraordinary: In 1960, a committee planning Orbisonia's bicentennial celebration asked Nick Kovalchick if one of the East Broad Top engines could be pulled out of the roundhouse and put on display during the event. "Mr. Kovalchick told them that he would do them one better," says Hall. "He'd put a train out and run it for their celebration."

A few of the old employees were called back, and Hall, fresh out of high school, was hired as a painter to spruce the place up. Two months later, he was called down from painting the station gable to see the first steam engine emerge from the roundhouse in four years. "There was probably 500 people up there … come from all over," he says. "And there wasn't a dry eye in the whole damn crowd when the East Broad Top came back to life."

The railroad has run every summer since. Initially, trains were scheduled daily, but in recent years they have run only Saturdays and Sundays, June through October. The line gets by with a handful of full-time employees who work April through early November. Tourists and rail fans continue to find their way to Rockhill Furnace, but Joe Kovalchick says the railroad has never made money as a tourist operation, and that it has remained open "at a very substantial cost to my family." Hall says some of the losses over the years have been covered by selling off unused railroad property—such as the old superintendent's house, across from the station, which an East Broad Top employee recently renovated and opened as a railroad-themed bed-and-breakfast.

The years of tight budgets have left the railroad in serious trouble, as anyone who visits can see. Only one of the steam locomotives is currently operable, down from four in 2001, because updated federal safety regulations now require railroads to dismantle each operating steam engine and test every part of its boiler. Federal certification for No. 15 cost the East Broad Top several hundred thousand dollars and took four years; there's no money to certify a second engine. Running a railroad with one 94-year-old steam locomotive, however, is betting against the odds. Sooner or later No. 15 is bound to have a problem more serious than last year's broken spring. The railroad has a diesel engine that can pull trains in a pinch, but for many visitors, the draw is seeing and hearing and smelling a steam engine in action.

The railroad's infrastructure is rusting and rotting, too. In 2004, for instance, the Saltillo station was demolished because it was too far gone to save. Much as it galls him, Hall can't afford to do more than the maintenance that is essential for passenger safety. "It's asking for help," he says of the railroad he has spent much of his life trying to preserve. "And it needs it." Steam railroading isn't cheap, though. Even half a million dollars, Hall says, would probably support the operating portion of the East Broad Top only another 10 years—but, he adds, that might be time enough for a long-term preservation plan to be put in place.

What it lacks in money, the railroad almost makes up for in the dedication of its fans. In the past few years volunteers from a group called Friends of the East Broad Top—of which I'm a member—have stepped in to paint the shop buildings for the first time in decades, replace hundreds of broken window panes, make structural repairs to the foundry and the boiler house, and give tours. The group has rehabilitated a caboose and a hopper car, and it is now rebuilding a passenger car from the 1880s and converting a steel boxcar from the 1920s for passenger use, to take some of the strain off the older wooden equipment. Younger volunteers take visitors for $2 rides on restored track maintenance cars, called speeders, from the 1920s.

"The trick here is to make as big a dent as you can with a little bit of money and a lot of skilled and committed helpers," says Lee Rainey, who coordinates the Friends' monthly work sessions. He says mailings by the Friends will seek to raise about $40,000 this year, and the group will spend much of it on "restoring things that are not directly related to operation but which are essential to preserve the unique historical character" of the East Broad Top, such as the shops complex.

Rainey says optimistically that the East Broad Top "has an exciting future—we just don't know what it is yet." Steam railroads around the country, he notes, operate in a variety of ways, some of which might serve as models for the East Broad Top. Some are for-profit corporations, as the East Broad Top is now; some are owned by states and operated as parks or leased to for-profit or nonprofit operators; some are owned by groups like the Friends. "The focus of our preservation efforts," he says, "is to ensure that as much of the historic fabric of the railroad is still around to be part of that future when it comes."

What the railroad needs, it would seem, is one person with very deep pockets or a team of grant seekers, tax lawyers, and lobbyists who can put together a smart preservation deal. Unfortunately, I couldn't point to either when I gave tours last year. With Hall approaching retirement from managing the railroad, Kovalchick says he is open to any kind of proposal for its future. "It could be a transition to an entity that would only be responsible for the railroad side of things," he says, "or it could involve the entire property"—including some 20,000 acres of company land. But as a for-profit tourist operation, he says, the railroad itself is not an attractive purchase. "The return on investment is not there," he says. "I feel very proud that my family's been able to keep this intact since 1956," he adds, "but I think we've paid our dues."

As for Hall, he leans back in an old swivel chair at his desk in the station, his tone matter-of-fact but his meaning melancholy. “Our time’s up,” he says of himself and Kovalchick. “Our time’s been good here, but we’re getting old. I’d like to stay with him another year. And I know that he would like to see the transition go to somebody like his family that cared about the place. I’m glad I ain’t in his shoes—he’s really got some tough decisions to make.” 



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