Awakening The East Broad Top Railroad Shops

The East Broad Top shop complex located in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania is a national treasure due to it’s encapsulation of not only the original structures and facilities used to run a railroad, but also for keeping intact the machinery, locomotives and rolling stock that supported the transportation system. Unfortunately, the railroad has not operated for almost 5 years and admission to the shop complex facilities has been limited in recent years. So when Matthew Malkiewicz contacted me a few weeks back and asked if I wanted to be included in a small group that would have access to the roundhouse for an hour or so for photography, I immediately said yes!

On the morning of the event, I wanted to get to the complex at sunrise to walk the grounds undisturbed and watch the light reveal its photographic opportunities. Driving through the snow covered hills of central Pennsylvania in the beautiful predawn light was inspiring and my anticipation grew the closer I got to Rockhill Furnace. I arrived at the complex parking lot just before sunrise and was immediately greeted by Matthew who had the same idea that I did in taking the environment in before the group showed up. After we exchanged 5 minutes of small talk, we mutually agreed to use the light to our advantage and get to our creative work.

I walked over to the roundhouse and absorbed the scene around me. The site was entirely still, covered in blue toned snow and ice from absorbing the sky color above and not a sound to be heard. The snow on the ground had obviously thawed and refroze a few times to create patches of solid ice as well as an ice crust over the snow. The snow gave evidence that no humans had explored the grounds in a while, which seemed so strange to me at first. The lack of recent human activity and serene stillness gave me the feeling that I was on sacred ground, and I felt apprehensive about disturbing the scene and silence in any way, even if it was through my footsteps.

Tracks of steel and fur lead to an isolated boxcar at the East Broad Top Shops

Tracks of steel and fur lead to an isolated boxcar at the East Broad Top Shops

To me, the EBT shop complex are hallowed grounds, a special and rare place where one can step back in time and see the artifacts of railroading and industry from the steam era. In the stillness of the early morning, the frozen and dormant site seemed like it was waiting to be awakened and brought back to life. With that thought, I made my first steps into the ice encrusted snow and broke the silence, knowing that the only thing I would take from here were photographs and memories.

The first rays of sun light up parts of the East Broad Top Shops.

The first rays of sun alight the East Broad Top Shops.

Busy looking and making images, I didn’t notice the others guests gathering in the parking lot and before I knew it, the time had come to open the roundhouse for our event.

An employee opens the doors to the EBT roundhouse.

Opening the doors to the EBT roundhouse.

A roundhouse has a special place in railroad lore, and this one did not disappoint. The six 2-8-2 “Mikado” locomotives were neatly lined up in each stall with their boiler fronts facing the warmth that the windows let in. Silent for now, they reinforced the general atmosphere of a time frozen still. While the locomotives have been cold for a long time, they still have an animated presence and seem to be in hibernation awaiting the long winter to be over. Not wanting to disturb them, I treaded lightly as I made their portraits.

"MIllie", the locomotive named after Nick Kovalchick's daughter sleeps in the roundhouse

“MIllie”, the locomotive named after Nick Kovalchick’s daughter sleeps in the roundhouse

Spilled coal that may someday warm the boiler of EBT #14

Spilled coal that may someday warm the boiler of EBT #14

EBT #17's smokebox door awash in light

EBT #17’s smokebox door awash in light

Before I knew it, our hour inside the roundhouse was up, but the management then surprised us with an offer to open up the machine and car shop buildings. I had a peak inside these facilities years ago during an official tour, but this was the first time that I could roam, really look at details and soak up the atmosphere inside these facilities. Even though some of the equipment has been brought back to life and is presently used for maintenance of the shops, much of the interior looked and felt like a time warp to 60 years ago when the complex was in it’s heyday.

Destined to be Dust

Destined to be Dust

Again, I was aware that I was stepping through history and careful not to disturb anything as I roamed.

Tools of the trade await skilled hands in the EBT machine shop

Tools of the trade await skilled hands in the EBT machine shop

EBT's speeder inside the machine shop

EBT’s speeder inside the machine shop

While it’s nice to think that EBT has been frozen in time and completely unchanged since the railroad shut down in 1956, the truth is that a lot of effort is undertaken each year by The Friends of the EBT and the Kovalchick family to maintain the site in its present condition. It really is astonishing that 60 years after the road’s abandonment that the shop complex and railroad has survived decay, funding issues, potential arson or vandalism, and the elements to this day.

Hopefully, this long dormant winter will end for the East Broad Top and we can once again witness and experience steam railroading as it used to be. At least as a tourist railroad.

 

6 Comments

  1. Eric,

    A very magical day last week, so glad you were able to join my small group. This was the third time I have been allowed to enter the roundhouse and backshops with my cameras post-closure; this visit I did a lot more looking, observing, and digesting as opposed to taking photos. I liken the East Broad Top to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls – all the pictures in the world cannot capture the scope of grandeur. The more you look the more you see.

    I arrived onsite an hour before you, just as the darkness of night was starting to be overtaken by the predawn light. It was quiet and still, a bitterly cold winter’s morning void of sound or motion. I silently roamed the yard, looking for scenes to photograph. Although the railroad has been closed since the end of the 2011 season, I enjoyed the surrounding town waking up. Life goes on.

    School buses were soon on the road, as were the locals headed to work. Men across the street were cutting trees with a chainsaw. Dogs started barking in the distance, I even smelled someone cooking breakfast. As I shot around the passenger station, automobiles still stop at the grade crossing to look both ways for oncoming trains. A silent reminder, a tradition, for they know wheels have not turned for five years now.

    I too did not want to disturb anything – even when walking on the virgin snow I was aware of my steps. Hallowed and sacred ground in Orbisonia. Commands and deserves respect.

    And there is so much more to see. The site at Robertsdale, the two tunnels, all the bridges and right of way being reclaimed by nature, the coal cars in the woods at Mount Union as well as the standard gauge 0-6-0 switcher in its own two stall engine house. It’s all still there.

    I take you back to an earlier blog post of yours, titled “Getting Beyond the Easy and Obvious Ones”; where you speak of us railfans all treading on the same 5% of real estate. With ventures like this one to the EBT, I am off the beaten path of the masses – some urban exploration of the abandonments of bygone years. You and I have spoken of another trip soon in our home state, we should explore and take advantage of jewels like this. Away from the rush and hustle of life, quiet times spent carefully composing and documenting. Reflecting. Remembering.

    I travel our country to the steam operations at tourist railroads and museums, the East Broad Top has always been and will always be my absolute favorite! The East Broad Top lives on elsewhere as well – I have seen transplanted EBT coal hoppers in current day service at the narrow gauge railroads of the Durango & Silverton, Cumbres & Toltec, and Sumpter Valley. Switcher #6 now resides in Indiana – a trip in itself I need to soon make.

    Matthew Malkiewicz

  2. Aric Penfield

    Very nice pictures. You were so lucky to have the opportunity.. I was able to ride there in 1984 but never got back. I’ll have to find my own pictures to relive the day. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Nicely done Eric. I plan on doing the same thing in a month or so and I cannot wait.

  4. East Broadtop RR, This Railroad is the best kept Secret of the Real History of Central, Pa. I find a empty and sad spot lingering in my heart when I drive past the now closed station, and we all know time is not a forgiving mistress. The longer the East Broadtop Railroad sits and it’s Trains are not out there running the tracks, the least likely that event ever will happen and all we’ll have left then is photographs and fading memories.

  5. Russell T. Patterson

    You did beautiful photography at EBT…it is so sad to see this national treasure
    dormant. I have great memories of bringing my family there just a couple years
    before it closed. I don’t understand why the governments of Pennsylvania do
    not get involved and save and use the history. It would be fractions of a dollar
    and something that really contributes to the character of their State !

    1. Eric Williams

      Russell, thanks for your comments!

      The owners have made it known that they would sell the railroad to a qualified buyer, but no one has come forward. I believe the state and the National Park Service both took a look and could not justify the cost of operating it vs the expected income it would generate. The problem is that the railroad needs an extensive amount of work and the location is rural, meaning not enough of a general population base. Stausburg and Steamtown are not too far away, but are much closer to the major population centers on the east. The rural location is only a blessing in that people have stayed away that might have harmed the railroad. It’s amazing that no one has put a torch to it when you think about it. Let’s hope that a white knight will someday arrive!

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