Last Narrow Gauge Line In America, Published 25 September 1948
(East Broad Top Railroad)
A Geography Lesson. By Austin Cross Evening Citizen Staff Writer
Last narrow gauge road left in Eastern United States is the East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company, deep in the coal hills of Pennsylvania. It was to this old time railroad that I was travelling, when I opened up my Myers Special on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. No sooner had I left the glamorous Road of Tomorrow for the Road to Yesterday, when I found myself going over mountains, snaking through dells, and generally getting a slow motion view of rustic Pennsylvania.
Now about the East Broad Top. It advertises in the Railroad Guide that it runs from Orbisonia, but It lists its operating personnel from Rockhill Furnace. Thus it would seem the railroad goes nowhere near the head office. Such is not the case. The two hamlets are contiguous, and cross a creek and you have gone from Orbisonia to Rockhill Furnace.
The East Broad Top exists mainly for coal. What makes it so picturesque is that it is narrow gauge, operating at three feet instead of the standard four feet, eight and a half inches. What makes it almost unique, however, is that it handles standard gauge cars on the narrow gauge. It takes them from the lordly Pennsylvania at Mount Union, hoists them up, de-trucks them, then sets them firmly on narrow gauge trucks. It looks funny to see a big modem 120,000 pound capacity box car trundling along on three-foot trucks.
Stayed Narrow Gauge
The line was originated way back in the 1870's, and the first superintendent was the father of Admiral Sims, the Canadian born sea-dog who was such a big personality in World War I. My recollection is that Sims himself came from Nova Scotia, which would indicate that you can't keep the Blucnoses out, no matter how hard you try. But it stayed narrow gauge, and to this day is a picturesque hangover from the days after the Civil War. 1 don't want to over-work a theme, but truly, it is The Road to Yesterday.
Rail Fan clubs often charter whole trains, and spend the day on the East Broad Top. Since they go out on Sundays, when there is nothing else on the line, they have the train stopped on some spectacular curve, and perhaps take thousands of pictures. Then they "shoot" the dinky little old locomotives from every possible angle, have a field day riding the cartoon strip cars, and go home happy. Two such charter parties had disturbed the Sabbath calm of the E.B.T. already this year, one more is already scheduled to go. They come hundreds of miles for this day of days.
I had plenty of time to look over the yards at Rcckhill Furnace, which is called Orbisonia on the map. Everything is in small scale. Up to date, though diminutive, are the freight cars. But the passenger coaches are of the old-fashioned type, with open vestibule, low backed seats, pot bellied stove, and primitive wash room. Anachonistically enough, some had electric lights.
Plenty Of Time
I had plenty of time to wait, because somebody up in the hills was working his coal mine that day. This meant that the branch train up to Robertsdale and Woodvale would be delayed. The East Broad Top had to make a special trip to bring out this car of coal, that the strip mine operator had mined that morning. So it was more than an hour after she was due that the 22 cars of coal and its 19th century coach came thundering down the mountain. Mail was quickly transferred, and our doodlebug was ready for its trip to the outside world.
I was riding the more sophisticated part of the road, the 11 miles from Rockhill Furnace (Orbisonia) to Mount Union, where the East Broad Top meets the outside world via the Pennsylvania Road. My son Fletcher and I sailed through the air on the narrow gauge, taking a bare 50 minutes to make the 11 miles up through Shlrleysburg, Pump Station, Aughwick and Allenport, to Mount Union.
He was late, and I asked the conductor how long he was going to stay in town. "Just long enough to turn around" he said. "I'll be looking for you."
I managed to get some of the atmosphere of the mining town of Mount Union while he turned around, and among the things I shall always remember was to see grandma, mamma, auntie, and the little girl all going into the bar for a drink of beer. Life in Mount Union is uninhibited.
I hated to have to go. but away I was whisked on the East Broad Top again, and in due course, landed back in Orbisonia. There is much more I could tell you about this quaint little railway, hidden away in the Alleghenles, making a profit somehow, and running miners' trains up into the mountains at 4.50 am. every day, but I leave it to your imagination if I didn't pick myself an interesting railway this time. This makes my score No. 129.
See you acrcss the Mason Dixon Line.