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Susquehanna Life

Family Life: Take a Railroad Excursion Back in Time

Jun 11, 2021 04:46PM ● By Darrin Youker

Brad Esposito can still recall the first time his parents took him on an excursion train ride along the East Broad Top, reminiscent of a trip that his grandfather took back in the 1960s. Back then, as a parent himself, the elder Esposito enjoyed a scenic trip through the mountains of Huntingdon County with his family.

Brad Esposito has been drawn to the railroad, and its buildings, which remain a time capsule of industrial history in the mid-1920s. Now, as the general manager of the East Broad Top Foundation, a non-profit that purchased the railroad in 2019, Esposito will lead efforts to start the next chapter of this storied railroad.

“Most museums are collections of items that are brought to one location,” Esposito said. “What makes East Broad Top unique is that nearly everything began its life here and has remained here.”

The East Broad Top Foundation is restoring a 13-building complex at Rockhill, and working to restore several key pieces of railroad equipment, including two steam engines, with the goal of regular excursion train service. Several special events are planned throughout 2021, but a date to resume regular service has not been determined.

“The restoration efforts are ongoing on our steam engine,” said Jonathan Smith, director of sales and marketing at East Broad Top. “Everything we do is to build up to our steam locomotives coming back on.”

 

Storied past

Constructed in 1872 to serve the iron mines and furnace at Rockhill Furnace, the East Broad Top Railroad grew to a 33-mile stretch to haul coal in southern Huntingdon County. The railroad started as narrow-gauge with three feet between the rails instead of the standard four foot, eight-inch spacing. Narrow-gauge was cheaper to build and was common when rails were built to service coal mines, oil wells and lumber patches, Esposito said.

As coal mines closed, the East Broad Top Railroad ended freight service in 1956. The entire railroad, including the tracks and building, was bought by Nick Kovalchick, who owned a scrap metal business. Unlike other railroads that ceased operations around that time, the East Broad Top was never abandoned. Instead, the family saw the historical importance of the railroad and the buildings at Rockhill.

 

Looking back

In the summer of 1960, the Kovalchick family started offering excursion train service on a 4 ½ mile stretch of track near Rockhill, and continued until 2011.

For most of the 2010s, the East Broad Top Railroad sat dormant, but there was significant interest among railroad enthusiasts to resume operations. Esposito, who spent most of his career in the railroad industry, met other industry professionals who shared his enthusiasm for the East Broad Top. Many were drawn to steam engines and rolling stock that had remained at the facility. Eventually, a core group of industry professionals formed the non-profit and approached the Kovalchick family about buying the facility.

“From there it just spiraled to the point of where all the stars aligned,” Esposito said. “The family was ready to sell and we had the right people in place to make it possible.”

 

Restoration efforts

Since the purchase was finalized, the foundation has been working to restore buildings, tracks and equipment with the goal of resuming excursion train service, Smith said. Instrumental in that effort is the Friends of East Broad Top Railroad, whose 1400 members have dedicated volunteer hours and resources to support those restoration efforts. The Friends of East Broad Top was founded in 1983 to assist with maintenance.

“There really has been a massive restoration effort underway, including all of the structures, the railroad tracks and the rolling stock,” Smith said. “Everything has been getting attention.”

East Broad Top features more than a dozen buildings and machine shops in the complex, including a roundhouse that was used to store steam locomotives. East Broad Top was unique in that it always used steam-powered locomotives.

“All of the machine shops are driven by leather overhead belts,” said Esposito. “When you walk into the place, you really could be walking back into the 1920s. It is a complete collection of industrial history that does not exist anywhere else.”

 

A destination

The Rockhill Trolley Museum, owned by a separate entity, sits on the same site as the East Broad Top Railroad, creating a destination for those who enjoy railroads, and living history.

Along with bringing back regular events, the East Broad Top Foundation has long term plans to become a tourist draw to the region. After all, the complex tells the complete history of the railroad and also the communities that grew up here because of industry. The story of this region is one of immigrant settlers coming to work in tough jobs, whether in mining coal or hauling it, and setting up roots in the community, Esposito said.

“Economic development, and working to bring more businesses, and more jobs into this area is a big part of what we want to do here,” he said.

 

Darrin Youker writes from his home in Adams County, Pa.

Photographs by Matthew Malkiewicz

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