No. 14 under gray skies, October 3, 1998

Narrow-Gauge Railroad,
A Historian's Dream,
Sings of the Past


From The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Lawrence Biemiller

Orbisonia, Pa. -- Much of America's industrial past rusts, forgotten, behind chain-link fences -- fences surrounding empty mills in Maine and Massachusetts, silent shipyards in Maryland, even Henry Ford's deserted auto plant in Michigan. But here in Orbisonia, a tidy town in a quiet valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the East Broad Top Railroad perseveres. On summer weekends men fire up its aging steam locomotives -- heavy, narrow-gauge Mikados that date from the teens -- and it becomes a history course described not in syllabi and reserve readings but in anthracite and No. 1 steel, in wooden ties that stretch 35 miles to link coal mines and rock quarries and impoverished settlements, in strings of sturdy hopper cars and sagging passenger coaches.

True, the railroad no longer hauls coal from the mines on the east side of Broad Top Mountain -- even what the Mikados burn comes in by truck. Nor do the diminutive coaches stop along the line to let miners off at their homes: The passengers now are tourists who pay to ride a few miles, out to a picnic grove and back. And the superintendent is afraid to use the astonishing collection of antique, belt-driven drills and lathes in the railroad's machine shop, because an overheated bearing or an errant spark could start a fire. Nevertheless the East Broad Top is whole and intact. Its locomotives wait in their engine house and its records fill file drawers in the offices on the second floor of the Orbisonia station. Its rails -- 3 feet apart, as opposed to 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches on standard-gauge lines -- are in place all the way from Robertsdale, near the top of the mountain, to Mount Union, where the E.B.T. transferred freight to the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is a historian's delight, a preservationist's fantasy, a railroad enthusiast's dream.

Just beyond the station are the yards. Visitors can walk up to the open doors of the engine house, peer at the turntable, stroll past the machine shop and the paint shop. At the yard's end are the coaling ramp and standpipe that supply the Mikados with fuel and water. Amazingly, no one forces visitors out of the yard when a train backs up to the standpipe, rumbling slowly over old rail joints and switches, coaches squealing in protest, locomotive dripping water and hissing steam. Smoke and hot oil and cinders scent the air. The experience is hard to forget.

The East Broad Top is "a unique representation of the iron-and-steel age," says Ronald L. Cherry, a professor of economics at Juniata College. Begun in 1873 to carry iron ore and coal, the railroad also carried ganister rock, which was used in making firebrick for steel furnaces. Although it carried timber and general freight as well, by the 1920s coal represented four-fifths of the E.B.T.'s tonnage. Well into this century, Dr. Cherry says, this was "a relatively remote area -- the roads were not paved early." The railroad "was the main way in and out, and it was the glue that held the area together economically."

William Withuhn, curator of transportation for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, says that what makes the E.B.T. "so unusual and so precious" is that "much of the original context still exists -- the whole cultural landscape of little towns up and down the valley that were once entirely dependent on the railroad for transportation and employment." The E.B.T., he says, "is a cultural time capsule." It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

Even among small railroads, the East Broad Top's history is unusual. It was conceived during narrow-gauge railroading's brief golden era, which lasted only from 1871 to 1883, according to George W. Hilton's American Narrow Gauge Railroads (Stanford University Press, 1990). Dr. Hilton, a retired economics professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, writes that cost was the main reason for building narrow-gauge instead of standard-gauge lines. Narrow-gauge engines and cars were smaller and lighter, so track and bridges didn't have to be as heavy. And curves could be sharper, so construction involved less earthmoving. The drawback was that freight cars could not be exchanged with those of standard-gauge lines. Instead, freight had to be unloaded and reloaded wherever the lines met, adding to operating costs. This incompatibility drove many narrow-gauge railroads to convert to standard gauge, and it drove many others out of business.

On the East Broad Top, however, compatibility wasn't much of a problem, says Juniata's Dr. Cherry. The coal that the railroad carried down from the mines had to be cleaned and sorted, so the railroad built a coal-washing plant at Mount Union. There coal was unloaded from E.B.T. hoppers, washed and graded, and then loaded into standard-gauge cars to be shipped out on the Pennsy. The tracks at Mount Union had three rails, accommodating both narrow- and standard-gauge rolling stock, and the railroad operated two standard-gauge engines for moving cars around the yard. In later years it also used its timber-transfer crane to lift standard-gauge cars off their wheels and mount them on narrow-gauge substitutes for trips to destinations along its line.

Dr. Hilton's book notes that the E.B.T. was one of the few narrow-gauge lines to upgrade its equipment to major-carrier standards. The six Mikados, purchased from the Baldwin Locomotive Works between 1911 and 1920, were unusually large and modern for a narrow-gauge line. Mikado-class engines -- so named because Baldwin built the first ones for export to Japan -- have two small leading wheels, eight larger driving wheels, and two trailing wheels under the cab. They were popular for slow, heavy trains. The later E.B.T. locomotives could pull more than 20 hoppers, each carrying up to 80,000 pounds of coal. And although the Mikados were slow by mainline standards, they were plenty fast enough for the E.B.T.'s passenger trains, which took nearly two hours to travel the 30 miles between Mount Union and Robertsdale.

The railroad turned a profit until World War II, but in the late 1940s the deep mines that contributed the bulk of its traffic faced increasing competition from strip mines, both in Pennsylvania and in the West. The last mine on the route closed in 1956, and the railroad shut down two weeks later. The entire property -- the railroad, the Rockhill Coal Company, parcels of real estate, and more -- was sold to a scrap dealer, Nick Kovalchick. For reasons about which people still speculate, he never scrapped the E.B.T. In 1960 he allowed townspeople to talk him into running trains again for Orbisonia's centennial. His son, Joe Kovalchick, is now the owner of the railroad.

Dr. Cherry says four of the Mikados are operable, or nearly so. The Smithsonian's Mr. Withuhn adds that the line has a good supply of engine parts -- "probably enough to build another whole locomotive." As for Mr. Kovalchick, Mr. Withuhn says: "I really admire the guy. I don't believe for a moment that he's even making his expenses back. Without Joe Kovalchick, the line would have been abandoned or scrapped out years ago."

Over the past 10 years the National Park Service and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have considered various alternatives for preserving the line permanently. But negotiations between Mr. Kovalchick and the state have so far come to nothing, and observers worry that the owner's heirs seem uninterested in the railroad. Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the E.B.T. on its list of endangered places. Saving it, Mr. Withuhn argues, is "absolutely vital." Soon enough, he warns, "we won't have any more of this rural industrial culture left to save."

But not even the direst warning can spoil a ride in one of the E.B.T.'s swaying, 90-year-old coaches. Foliage brushes past open windows, and a butterfly makes an erratic crossing from one side of the car to the other. A baseball diamond comes into view on the east side of the train, a truss bridge with a wooden roadbed on the west; meadows and trees pass in leisurely procession. Tiny cinders drift through the car, settling on T-shirts and shorts and in passengers' hair. The rhythmic, throaty chuffing of the big Mikado just ahead keeps time for a song that was once as familiar to Americans as the morning, a song of steel wheels squealing against rails, of hot steam hissing, of drawbars clanking. Then the engineer whistles for a grade crossing -- it's the gravel drive of a ranch-style house with a birdbath in its yard -- and the whistle's long echo hangs above the valley as though time itself had stopped, at least long enough for the train to rumble past.

Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Title: Narrow-Gauge Railroad, a Historian's Dream, Sings of the Past. Published: 97/07/11