Pennsylvania’s storied three-foot gauge East Broad Top Railroad has a new owner, a non-profit foundation organized by a small group of prominent rail-industry figures and longtime fans. The new organization will offer several public events in 2020—the 60th anniversary of the start of tourist service—and will work to resume regular operation in 2021. The non-profit EBT Foundation Inc. will take ownership of approximately 27 miles of the line, from just below Mount Union to Robertsdale. The sale includes the railroad’s historic shops at Rockhill Furnace, as well as all remaining rolling stock and equipment (with the exception of EBT 0-6-0 no. 3 stored at Mount Union). Initial plans call for reopening the railroad as far as Colgate Grove, with further expansion possible in 2021.
“This is the best possible outcome for the railroad, which has been in my family for two generations,” says Joseph Kovalchick, whose father Nick Kovalchick purchased the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Company after its mines closed down in 1956. “It is with a combination of pride and relief that we pass the torch in its second reincarnation.” The Kovalchicks will continue to own coal company property that had been jointly owned with the railroad. “When my father bought the company, it was never his intention to scrap the railroad. At the time he was the only one to stand for the EBT, and his role in the history books is assured. My generation has struggled to balance the need to preserve this national treasure with running it as a business, and I take pride in our role in its survival. But it is clear that a for-profit business model is not sustainable. Our faith in the new model is reflected in both the sale and the Kovalchick family’s ongoing role on the board of the new non-profit.” Financial details of the purchase will remain confidential.
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Brad Esposito, a 20-year veteran of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. company, led the effort to purchase the EBT, along with longtime enthusiasts David Brightbill, Lawrence Biemiller, and Stephen Lane. Backers of the new non-profit organization include industry heavyweights Wick Moorman, former chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern and former CEO of Amtrak; Henry Posner III, a former Conrail manager who is chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the Railroad Development Corporation, of Pittsburgh; and Bennett Levin, a retired mechanical and electrical engineer who owns the Juniata Terminal Company, which operates two Pennsylvania Railroad E8 diesel locomotives and three private cars. Posner will chair the foundation’s board, while Moorman will be the foundation’s first president.
New General Manager Brad Esposito says the new organization will immediately begin work on several fronts. East Broad Top has been closed since the end of the 2011 season, and the railroad will need to overhaul track and equipment, including locomotives and passenger cars, before regular service can resume. A modern fire-suppression system will be installed in the historic machine shops and roundhouse, and several structural stabilization projects will be undertaken. “The East Broad Top is a unique national treasure unmatched anywhere in the United States,” says Esposito. “We are excited to pick up the torch and ensure that the railroad is preserved for future generations.”
The volunteers of the Friends of the East Broad Top will be close partners with the new non-profit organization. “They have contributed countless hours of work and significant amounts of money to help preserve the historic fabric of the EBT since 1983.” The railroad also looks forward to working with the Rockhill Trolley Museum, which dates back to 1960 and operates standard gauge trolleys on track constructed on the roadbed of the former Shade Gap Branch. “This will be an exciting opportunity to promote and further develop tourism in the area.”
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“The East Broad Top is a remarkable survivor from the age of steam railroading,” says Moorman. “I’m delighted to have the chance to be a part of its revival, both for the preservation of such an important part of our industrial heritage, and for the economic benefits that it will provide to an area of Pennsylvania that is so closely linked to the railroad industry.”
August 13, 2020, will mark the 60th anniversary of the East Broad Top’s first reopening, which took place during the bicentennial of the founding of what became the twin boroughs of Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace “At that time Nick Kovalchick could not have imagined the possibility of reopening the entire line, but fortunately our industry’s renaissance has helped create an environment in which this important and audacious project can succeed,” said Posner. “We are honored to follow in the footsteps of two generations of the family that has made this all possible.”
Levin notes that the EBT runs through a bucolic landscape almost unchanged since the early 1900s. “The railroad’s historic fabric is an important component of the region’s industrial archaeology, and the educational possibilities here are almost limitless.”
Steve Barry photo
Opened in 1874 to haul coal to a new iron furnace in the center of the state, the 33-mile-long East Broad Top survived the collapse of the local iron industry at the turn of the 20th century because the top-quality coal it carried had found other markets, thanks in part to close cooperation with the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the last of the coal mines closed in 1956, the property was purchased by the Kovalchick Salvage Co. of Indiana, Pa. Despite being in the scrap business, the company left the railroad intact and in 1960 reopened a portion of the line for steam-powered tourist trains that proved widely popular. EBT is the only original narrow-gauge railroad surviving east of the Rocky Mountains, and it is well known as one of the world’s finest examples of a preserved railway.
Stored in the roundhouse are six narrow-gauge steam locomotives built for the EBT by Baldwin Locomotive Works between 1911 and 1920. They share the building with the unique M-1 gas-electric, constructed at the railroad in 1927 with plans and parts supplied by J.G. Brill Co., a leading streetcar manufacturer, and Westinghouse Electric. Other EBT equipment includes several passenger cars believed to date to the 1890s and numerous steel freight cars built in the EBT shops. The East Broad Top was the only American narrow gauge to convert to an all-steel freight car fleet.
“This will be a monumental undertaking,” says Esposito. “I encourage anyone interested in helping us to join the Friends of the East Broad Top and come work on buildings, track and equipment.” Announcements of future public events and excursions will be posted to the railroad’s new website can be found at eastbroadtop.com.
—via press release