The East Broad Top Railroad has been a treasury of industrial heritage as well as a wonderful photographic subject to me for years. While officially abandoned in 1956, a good portion of its infrastructure exists and I’m constantly surprised as I learn more about the railroad. Not long ago, Matthew Malkiewicz clued me in on a water tank still standing on the line and I put it on my list to explore and photograph.
From my research, I knew that the Coles Station water tank is located within thick woods so I wanted to seek it out during the winter months, when the leaves are down and the light is soft and diffused. A free weekend gifted me the time and off I went in search of the tank. Driving west beyond Orbisonia, I was surprised at just how much of the railroad was not only visible, but also seemingly ready to host a train. The rails were left in place when the line was abandoned 60 years ago and for the most part, have remained untouched. Seeing rail laid 36” apart through the hollows and mountains of Pennsylvania made me nostalgic for what I had missed but also made me grateful for what remained.
As my GPS directed me onto Coles Valley Road, it was easy to follow the railroad altered landscape and I kept my eye open for the tank. A quick glance down at the GPS showed that I was approaching my previously marked point. When I looked up and out the passenger side window, there it was. The trees between the road and the tank were tall, thinly spaced and bare, offering a clear view of the bucolic scene. As I pulled to a stop, my initial reaction was amazement that the structure was still standing. I obviously knew that it did, but I suppose that I’ve become conditioned to old abandoned structures like this being vandalized or rotting in the elements. In my neck of the woods of northern New Jersey, an unattended structure like this would have been torched long ago. Yet, there it was, right in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods appearing like it could still fill one of EBT’s small Mikado’s, if one should happen along.
The road was paved, but narrow and obviously not heavily trafficked. I passed two residences along the way… yet here in the middle of nowhere, No Trespassing signs lined both sides of the road. While I normally would have pulled over onto the narrow shoulder, I was afraid that the parked car would draw attention to me crossing marked property. I drove up the road a bit and discovered a grade crossing and a small dirt road that paralleled the tracks. While the adjacent woodlands may be private property, I figured that the right-of-way still belonged to the Kovalchick family (the owners of the EBT) and that was my argument if anyone told me to leave. I turned in on the dirt road and parked among the trees to be as inconspicuous as possible. In hindsight, my concern was unfounded as I didn’t see a car pass in the 75 minutes that I spent there.
Two sets of tracks led the eye to the water tank and I made my approach with a bit of reverence. Excited, I took a few quick handheld shots to get it out of my system and then put the camera away as I surveyed the building. There was a padlock on the door, but the supporting metal hinge had pulled out of the decaying wood which allowed the wind to push the door open. I walked inside and was pleasantly surprised at how intact the interior was. The tank was up in the second floor rafters and at one time there was a heating stove beneath it. The stove was gone, but it was easy to imagine the constant tending of the fire to keep the water from freezing during the cold mountain winters. For most of the railroad’s active life, a station was adjacent to the tank and I will speculate that the agent must have also worn the hat of the tank-tender as well. The station closed about 8 years before the railroad was abandoned, so the chore must have fallen upon another worker…maybe the watchman from the nearby Rocky Ridge tunnel?
I encircled the structure twice and observed how the changing weather effected the light and atmosphere of the landscape. The mood was serene and mystical and I made a small body of images that reflected the vision I had of the abandoned, yet proud water tank that has survived 98 years.
The Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad hired an architect several years ago to formally document the tower and the survey is available here.