The East Broad Top:
A Ride in the M-1

Excerpts from a letter to an E.B.T. fan at the South Pole (and I'm not kidding -- he really was at the South Pole)


Back this afternoon from a Pennsylvania run that included most of the first day of the Fall Spectacular. I got there a little before 11, which is early for me, coming from D.C., but was late enough that there were three trains out on the main when I arrived -- the passenger train, with the two combines, the single surviving coach, and the business car "Orbisonia"; the "picnic train" of bench-equipped flatcars and one of the cabooses; and a mixed freight with a couple of hoppers, the tank car, two boxcars, a flatcar with benches, and the other caboose. No. 15 managed the passenger consist; the picnic train was doubleheaded with No. 12 and No. 14 (No. 12 had some kind of leak that made a pretty unhappy kind of noise); and No. 17 pulled the freight.

The weather was chilly and partly cloudy -- very autumnal, with leaves starting to change color. By next weekend the valley should be resplendent. After the noon whistle salute -- No. 16 had been dragged out of the enginehouse, and her whistle had been attached to a tank of compressed air -- after the salute I rode the picnic-train consist out to Colgate Grove, took some pictures around Orby, and then drove up to Mount Union in hopes of finding the enginehouse there open (no such luck). When I got back, it was just in time to catch an announcement saying that there were still tickets for a second M-1 run that had just been added, so I hurried to plunk down another $25.

It turned out to be really rewarding. The M-1 seems to be in great shape, mostly thanks to the continuing interest of a guy named Phil Glass, who is also chairman of the board of the Rockhill Trolley Museum. We ended up having a long layover at the Colgate Grove wye (No. 15 developed a lubricator problem on her way back to Orby, so she limped in with frequent stops for hand oiling), and Mr. Glass talked some about the M-1. I'd heard that it's the only surviving narrow-gauge gas-electric, but he said it's the only surviving gas-electric of any gauge that has its original equipment intact. Most railroads found the gasoline motors difficult to maintain, and converted the cars to diesel or scrapped them as soon as they could.

The story behind the gas-electrics is interesting. Seems Brill was realizing even in the teens that the streetcar business didn't have a lot of growth potential, and company officials determined to bid on a War Department contract to build gasoline motors for dirigibles. The bidding rules required not only that you design the motor, but that you have 100 in stock to prove you were serious. Brill built the motors, but didn't win the contract. Experiments with gasoline-powered mechanical-drive rail cars had come to grief because the engines couldn't handle the torque needs of railroading, but someone at Brill talked to someone at Westinghouse, which eventually provided generators and traction motors, and the combination worked out pretty well. (The gasoline motors, Mr. Glass said, had hollow drive shafts -- he might have said crankshafts, I don't remember -- to save weight on the dirigibles. The shafts weren't strong enough to handle mechanical-drive railroad set-ups, but they worked out okay when all they had to do spin a generator.)

EBT licensed plans from Brill and bought the gasoline engine and the Westinghouse equipment. The M-1 was built in the EBT shops in '27 with a compartment that holds 12 passengers, as well as a substantial freight compartment and a small engine compartment. A coach was rebuilt with roller bearings to hold overflow passengers, and on days when the mines were closed and there were no coal trains to hook one of the combinations to, she handed the mixed runs. She also often ended up handling light switching when none of the Mikes was available, and could tug a half-dozen or so empty hoppers if necessary. She has air for train brakes as well as a separate air system for her own brakes, but no dynamic braking. In the early years of tourist service -- I guess the railroad didn't have any diesels yet -- the M-1 was used to pull the coaches out of the sheds for the trains, Mr. Glass said, but he said he has put a stop to that. As he put it, "Steam engines are a dime a dozen -- we've got four of 'em here that work -- but this is the only one of these anywhere."

He was a really interesting guy. He also explained why the car sways like the dickens -- when the truck design was narrowed to fit the three-foot gauge, the dimensions of the springs and other fittings weren't changed. The result, he said, is that between 15 and 18 m.p.h., the trucks on the 45-foot car hit the joints between 30-foot lengths of rails in a way that sets the car rocking almost violently, especially where the track's not in such good shape. Even so, the car rides much more smoothly than anything else on the line. He said it had gotten its share of abuse over the years, but that it had been heavily restored -- I'm guessing by him and other trolley-museum folks. Kinda makes me want to send them some money. (He also mentioned -- while explaining to someone that the EBT had never been formally abandoned, although parts of it are inactive -- that the trolley museum "has designs on the Shade Gap branch," which is the line on which they have their mile or two of track now.)

Fall Spectacular 2000 | Rockhill Trolley Museum