The new owners and fans of the historic narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad gathered Thursday afternoon in Rockhill to observe the 60th anniversary of the opening of the EBT as a tourist operation in 1960. The gala observance, featuring a recreation of the EBT’s 1960 return to the rails, was held in conjunction with the twin boroughs of Orbisonia and Rockhill’s 260th anniversary of Orby’s founding.
Closely following COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and guidelines, officials of the new East Broad Top Foundation Inc. and a large crowd of EBT fans recalled the date of Aug. 13, 1960, when Millie (Kovalchick) Glinsky, daughter of former EBT owner the late Nick Kovalchick, broke a bottle of ginger ale across the pilot of EBT’s steam locomotive No. 12, launching the National Historic Landmark into a second career.
From that time until 2011, the EBT served as an important component of Huntingdon County’s rich history and tourist economy. Closed since 2011, the National Historic Landmark is scheduled to fully reopen in 2021, using at least two of six EBT steam locomotives now being restored in the railroad shops at Rockhill.
Highlighting Thursday afternoon’s gala celebration was a re-creation of the 1960 christening of EBT steam locomotive No. 12 by Millie (Kovalchick) Glinsky, this time using a bottle of sparkling white grape juice.
Glinsky recalled visiting the EBT with her parents in the late 1950s, when she quickly fell in love with her father’s newly-purchased railroad. As a result of her love affair with the railroad, No. 12 was christened after the young Kovalchick.
As a part of Thursday’s observance, EBT steam locomotive No. 16 (now being restored for operation next year) was officially christened “Nick,” in honor of the late Mr. Kovalchick who EBT railfans saluted for saving the railroad from the scrap heap.
Also, on hand for the celebration was Joe and Judy Kovalchick, former owners and operators of the EBT and other members of the Kovalchick family. Joe Kovalchick spoke briefly about his father’s decision to “save the railroad” in 1956 and his desire “to finally own the toy train he had always wanted.”
Joe Kovalchick spoke with pride of his father’s dedication to keep the EBT running starting in 1960, followed by Joe’s leadership from 1977 until the sale earlier this year. Both Nick and Joe Kovalchick’s commitment to the railroad “came from the heart,” observed Joe Kovalchick.
To conclude the transfer of the EBT property from the Kovalchicks to the new foundation, Joe Kovalchick turned over the deed to 25 additional acres of property at Rockhill to be used in the future operation of the railroad.
On Valentine’s Day this year rail fans learned that the new EBT Foundation Inc. acquired 27 miles of the original 33-mile-long narrow gauge right of way between the southern end of the concrete-arch Aughwick Bridge in Shirley Township to the Robertsdale/Wood area in Wood Township, all in Huntingdon County. The purchase also included the EBT’s rolling stock, six steam locomotives, railroad complex at Rockhill and related equipment. The purchase does not include the active mining area on Broad Top Mountain.
Initial plans call for reopening the EBT from Rockhill to the Colgate Grove picnic area near Shirleysburg, offering the familiar 12-mile round trip train ride between the two southern Huntingdon County communities. The first phase of the reopening project also involves reconditioning several of the six steam locomotives and rolling stock, as well as needed rehabilitation of the right of way.
Incorporated as a nonprofit foundation in January to acquire, preserve and operate the EBT, the EBT Foundation Inc. has launched a major overhaul of the railroad’s track and equipment including locomotives and passenger cars as well as the installation of a fire-suppression system in the historic machine shops and roundhouse. Other improvements include several structural stabilization projects at the railroad’s Rockhill Furnace complex.
The foundation is also working closely with the Friends of the East Broad Top and the next door Rockhill Trolley Museum in mapping out the railroad’s future including additional preservation activities beyond Rockhill and Orbisonia.
The EBT’s new general manager, Brad Esposito, a 20-year veteran of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a Genesee & Wyoming Inc. company, told the large crowd of EBT fans Thursday that the EBT Foundation has a three-fold mission and commitment: first to preserve and operate the EBT as a steam railroad; second, to educate visitors about the role of railroads in local and national history; and third, to promote local and regional tourism and economic growth.
“A lot activity has taken place here and more is planned for this fall as we prepare to reopen in 2021,” said Esposito.
The EBT general manager and Henry Posner III, chairman of the foundation, welcomed the EBT fans to Rockhill and thanked the Kovalchick family for their many years operating the railroad. The men also recognized the Friends of the EBT, Rockhill Trolley Museum, local and state political officials and others for their support for the preservation of the railroad.
The EBT was chartered by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1956, with construction beginning in 1872. Passenger service was started between Mount Union and Rockhill Furnace a year later followed by the start-up of coal trains arriving in Robertsdale in late 1874. Seventeen years later, the EBT began transporting semi-bituminous Broad Top coal from the new mining town of Woodvale.
Over the decades, the EBT saw major expansion as its iron, coal and passenger service employed a countless number of people from the southern Huntingdon County and Broad Top areas. In the year 1911, the railroad received steam locomotive No. 12 which became the last of sixth locomotives having the 2-8-0 (“Mikado”) wheel arrangement, followed by the delivery of No. 18 which arrived at Rockhill in 1920.
The railroad saw its ups and downs through the early part of the 20th century and closed in 1956 with the collapse of the coal mining industry, only to reopen on six miles of its original right of way between Rockhill and Colgate Grove in 1960.
Although the EBT initially sought abandonment in 1955, the abandonment request was rescinded in 1971. Most of the EBT’s narrow gauge rails remain intact between Mount Union and the Broad Top including two tunnels and several bridges.
Sold-out rides on the EBT, utilizing non-steam motive power, were provided for fans Thursday and will continue throughout the weekend while other EBT enthusiasts were guided on tours of the EBT roundhouse and repair shops which have undergone extensive restoration and stabilization this summer. Likewise, sold-out rides on the Rockhill Trolley Museum’s street cars were enjoyed by visitors.
Also, on hand for the festivities was Andrew Van Scyoc, president of the FEBT, who announced that the nonprofit organization’s fall reunion would take place Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 9-11 at Rockhill and Robertsdale, closely adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. Additional information will be forthcoming, the FEBT chief noted.
In addition to the festivities at the EBT, several area historical societies sponsored presentations and exhibits in the Orbisonia Lions Club building Thursday, which will also continue today and Saturday evenings.
Events will continue throughout the weekend, including food, vendors and entertainment.
Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.