East Broad Top Railroad is one of the only narrow gage railroads still operation: narrow gauge is 3 feet wide, whereas standard gauge — virtually all other modern railroads in the United States — is 4 foot, 8 inches wide. The railroad, which was built beginning in 1872, is the only surviving narrow gauge common carrier railroad east of the Rocky Mountains.
Shortly before the railroad was constructed, the railroad directors decided to build a 3-foot narrow gauge line, which not only saved money (lighter bridges with smaller rail), but also allowed them to construct sharper curves — handy for navigating the mountainous region. A year after construction began, it reached Rockhill Furnace, allowing passenger service to begin. It was another year, though, before the railroad would reach Robertsdale, a small company town, on Broad Top Mountain. In addition to some passenger service, the railroad primarily carried bituminous coal from the Robertsdale Station, as well as pig iron. When completed, East Broad Top Railroad served the iron furnaces and coal mines along a 33-mile corridor.
The railroad both ordered rolling stock from other manufacturers, and manufactured its own; in fact, more than 200 hopper cars were built from scratch in the Rockhill shops complex.
Operating a narrow gauge railroad in a region of primarily wide gauge railroads presented the challenge of having to shift freight from the narrower cars to the standard railroad cars. In 1924, the railroad built a crane for transferring timber from its cars to the standard-gauge cars.
In 1927, the railroad built the M-1, a 250 horse power, gasoline engine that feeds electricity to motors on all four axles; a 12-seat passenger compartment accommodates riders and a freight compartment carried packages and the U.S. mail. It is the only such gas-motorcar ever built for an American narrow-gauge railroad. And we got to ride on it!
In fact, we got to ride on what’s sometimes referred to by train enthusiasts as “rare mileage” — a rare opportunity to ride a car that usually isn’t available for excursions, or a chance to ride track that usually isn’t available. In our case, it was the opportunity to ride this cool, one-of-a-kind car. We rode the M-1 (which also pulled a lovely passenger car) 9 miles through rolling hills, farms and wood lots to the Colgate Picnic Grove, the traditional three point turn-around for the East Broad Top excursions.
Colgate Grove is located on the East Broad Top mainline just south of Shirleysburg. It originated as a spur track serving a clay pit at the top of nearby Sandy Ridge. In 1961, shortly after the railroad reopened as a tourist line, a turnaround wye was created using the spur track as one leg, and picnic facilities were added. For decades, riders had the option of packing a meal and enjoying it during a layover at the grove. The railroad also acquired additional land around the grove to preserve its rural character.
The railroad closed in 1956 and was sold to the Kovalchick family, which reopened the line as a steam-powered tourist railroad. The EBT Foundation acquired the railroad in February 2020 and began an extensive restoration effort, that unfortunately was delayed because of the COVID pandemic. Despite the pandemic, however, limited train excursions were held, and work to repair and restore the rolling stock as well as to stabilize the historic buildings on the property continued. Now the railroad museum is preparing a grand reopening.
Unlike many railroad museums, the East Broad Top is home to a variety of historic wooden passenger cars, steel freight cars, gas motors, and steam locomotives that were either built for the railroad or spent most of their working life here.
Just as cool as the train excursion was our tour through the manufacturing shops. I kind of geek-out at this sort of industrial history, not going to lie. In fact, I have 19th-century factory forms (wooden forms created to test out a machine design before pouring the metal) hanging on my wall, so yeah: this is a thing.
The circa-1900 machine-shop complex at Rockhill Furnace, with more than a dozen buildings, once was threatened by decay and deterioration, but now the buildings are being stabilized. The complex is remarkably complete, with an overhead-shaft and belt-driven system of powering machine tools.
During a several-day exploration of the Raystown Lake region, this was one of my favorite daytrip destinations!
Know before you go: The Rockhill Trolley Museum is adjacent to the East Broad Top Railroad, and the two attractions are essentially run by the same organization. Spend a full day by enjoying the Trolley Museum (and going on a trolley ride, of course), going on a train excursion and touring the rail shops.
Getting there: 421 Meadow Street, Rockhill Furnace, PA
Hours: East Broad Top Railroad will operate scheduled trains five days a week, Wednesdays through Sundays, from May 6 through Aug. 28, and Fridays through Sundays in September and October. Schedule times, fares, and arrangements for reservations vary, so check the website below.
Website: East Broad Top Railroad