by Stephen Lane
April 1, 1956: an overcast day, and the weather is foggy down below the mountainside. You got up early to hear a sound you won’t hear in the next few weeks. You’ll be the last of a generation of several before you who could set their watches to a simple sound. You walk down the branch line from your town to the mountain side switch. Softly you start to hear it, a muffled sort of chuff, a sound that is exclusive to a steam engine.
Next you hear the echo of a whistle—two long blasts and two short ones. The sound reverberates for miles under the dark skies. It is Engine 18 coming, each whistle a unique voice to the railroad’s six locomotives. They skip the water stop at Coles and the engine starts digging into the heavy grade. The chug turns into a pound and you can hear the click-clack of the 22 empty hopper cars behind. All are destined for the mines for one final load of coal.
You’re standing outside the Wray’s Hill tunnel, and the engine is making a final dash for the mountain. You make eye contact with the crew; they have their bandanas around their noses as they shut the windows in the cab. The engine thunders past you and nearly disappears into a cloak of black smoke. Peaking just inside the tunnel, the glow of the locomotive’s heart comes in and out of sight as the fireman shovels coal. Next week, this scene, one that stood the test of time for 83 years, will be no more. But even though abandonment notices are posted at each and every station, the EBT railroad would survive.
The ‘50s and ‘60s were decades of change for American industry, decades that nearly killed many railroad companies. Railroads had extremely tight regulations as to what they could and could not do. Considered public entities, whether a railroad line was profitable or not, if someone used it they had to operate until an application abandonment was approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission. As private automobiles and air travel replaced “America’s favorite way to travel,” the passenger business on railroads had nearly dried up.
The National Interstate Highway system was a huge knife into the heart of the railroad system; trucks were now reliable and big enough that they could more conveniently haul the country’s freight. Railroads that were at one time the necessity of the country’s commerce became an old fashioned option. But this is not the story of the big, national railroads; this is the story of a 30-some odd mile narrow gauge rail line that existed entirely in Huntingdon County and the lessons that can be learned from it.
The East Broad Top (EBT) Railroad’s history starts out as a single piece of paper dated in 1856. The company was chartered to build a railroad from Mount Union, Pa. to the Broad Top Coal fields by way of a meandering path that zig-zagged up mountains and through valleys. Due to the long process of gathering finances and the effects of the Civil War, the railroad’s construction was not started until 1872.
The EBT Railroad company officials decided on building the railroad to a unique track gauge (distance between the rails) of three feet. Normal “standard” United States railroad gauge was four feet, eight-and-a-half inches. It is common belief that this gauge was the distance between Roman chariots, and, like those Chariots, the original trains of the late 1700s were simply horse drawn carts. This narrower gauge that the EBT chose enabled trains to negotiate the mountainsides more easily, and it significantly reduced construction costs of the railroad and equipment.
The EBT Railroad in the beginning had a single goal: to bring coal and iron ore to the Rockhill Iron & Coal Company’s iron furnace outside of Orbisonia. The iron furnace was a huge employer for the area, and like other industries, it created its own town to house employees of the furnace. Creatively, this new town was named “Rockhill Furnace.”
For the next thirty years, the diminutive locomotives decorated in ornate brass and dashing colors chugged up and down the railroad with wooden framed freight cars, little varnished and plush seated coaches, and various other diminutive cars. Even though by this time the Knuckle Coupler and a reliable Air Brake system had been a near industry standard, this particular railroad resisted using until the 1900s.
Eventually, the market for cast iron ebbed as steel production had taken hold of national metal markets. Also, the grade of iron ore in the area was rather poor, so in the mid-1900s the Rockhill Furnace ceased production and the windows were bricked up. Without a their former source of income, the townspeople of Rockhill Furnace literally picked up and moved close to the railroad. Slowly, the brick-constructed Rockhill Furnace literally disappeared, and ironically enough, at the same time, brick homes were built in the newly located town of Rockhill Furnace. The EBT now relied almost entirely on shipping coal to the Pennsylvania Railroad for its revenue.
One of the major downfalls to narrow gauge railroads was that any cargo hauled on the narrow gauge lines had to be unloaded and reloaded into the Standard Gauge cars once they reached the bigger railroads. For this reason, once a narrow gauge railroad became fairly successful, it was re-gauged to standard. The EBT was an exception to this rule. Since the railroad was run by the same individuals who ran the coal mines, a massive “coal cleaning” plant was constructed at the Mount Union terminal. Coal was unloaded from the small cars, washed, sorted and reloaded into the PRR trains. Because of this setup, the EBT’s narrow gauge became a nonissue.
In the 19-teens a man by the name of Robert Siebert returned as President to the EBT, originally having started out as a telegraph boy. It was this man who changed the face of the EBT. New, larger steam locomotives, using modern construction practices, replaced the old ones adorned with brass. Track was upgraded to a much higher standard, and the EBT railroad began building from scratch its own steel rolling stock. The railroad was almost as modern as the biggest railroads in the country. It was unheard of for a little Podunk railroad to build its own rolling stock and have the ability to rebuild the locomotives almost from the ground up. The EBT was, until its closure, the most modern narrow gauge railroad in the country.
However, with coal as its lifeblood and coal markets disappearing in the ‘50s, the railroad went into financial problems. Midnight scrapings of locomotives occurred, and paperwork was burned to keep the railroad afloat. But the final nail in the coffin came in 1956, when the railroad applied for abandonment. Soon after, a scrap dealer from Indiana, Pa. purchased the line. But with an interesting turn of fate, the scrap markets collapsed and the EBT became a frozen asset for the scrap dealer.
Four years go by and a new trend occurs. People are actually starting to find interest in the old steam locomotives and railroads that seemed to have completely disappeared in the past few years. The railroad’s owners began to look into the concept of becoming a “tourist railroad,” and in 1960 the railroad reopened part of its system and brought back two steam locomotives. From there until 2011, the EBT operated for 51 years as a tourist railroad.
Sadly, however, for the past five years, the railroad has once again fallen silent. Weeds have slowly overtaken the rails and ties alike. Locomotives sit in a seemingly eternal slumber while the ravages of time slowly chip away at the very tracks they rest on.
It’s no exaggeration to say the EBT Railroad is one of the most complete historic industrial sites in the country. There are still time slips in the shop foreman’s office from employees who didn’t come back to work once it shut down. For these corners of the American railroad, time stopped in April 1956. Walking the grounds of the shop and brushing shoulders with the ghosts of our past is a surreal experience, and the closest thing we may ever have to a time machine.
Yet it sits for sale, No Trespassing signs posted everywhere. One of the biggest historical treasures this country possesses, one of our greatest links to our past, lies fallow, silently decaying. Although it is my belief that eventually something will be done and the railroad will be bought and saved, the EBT’s neglect is not a lone case. Countless historical sites have been forgotten across the country.
Folks, history is our story; it is part of our soul, and it is the timeline to what we are today. We need to respect and save these precious links; we need to care enough to preserve what we have for future descendants. With each passing year we become more removed from previous generations, and the link further becomes hazier. Once something like the EBT is gone, it’s gone forever, and there is no bringing it back.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 10 Campus Spin