Re: Nonprofit Purchases East Broad Top

Mike Van Hove

Thanks, Russ for a most interesting email.

I certainly wish these folks all the success in the world.

Mike Van Hove

Columbia, MO

On Feb 14, 2020, at 10:52 AM, Russ Norris <rbnorrisjr@...> wrote:

A press release that was embargoed until 11 AM EST:


East Broad Top Railroad
P.O. Box 158
Rockhill Furnace, Pa. 17249
814-447-3285 | ​ info@...

News Release
Embargoed / Do Not Release before February 14, 2020 at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

Nonprofit Buys East Broad Top Railroad, Plans to Renovate and Reopen

Pennsylvania’s storied East Broad Top Railroad has a new owner, a
nonprofit foundation organized by a small group of prominent
rail-industry figures and longtime EBT fans. The new organization will
offer several EBT events in 2020 — the 60th anniversary of the start of
tourist service on the railroad — and hopes to resume regular operation
in 2021.

The organization, called the EBT Foundation Inc., will own approximately
27 miles of the line, from the south end of the concrete-arch bridge
over the Aughwick River below Mount Union to the road crossing in Wood
Township. The foundation will also own the narrow-gauge railroad’s
shops, rolling stock, and equipment. The East Broad Top is a National
Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This is the best possible outcome for the railroad, which has been in
my family for two generations,” says Joseph Kovalchick, whose father,
Nick Kovalchick, purchased the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Company
after its coal mines closed in 1956. “It is with a combination of pride
and relief that we pass the torch in its second reincarnation.” The
Kovalchicks will continue to own coal-company property that had been
jointly owned with the ra ilroad.

“When my father bought the company, it was never his intention to scrap
the railroad. At the time he was the only one to stand for the EBT, and
his role in the history books is assured. My generation has struggled to
balance the need to preserve this national treasure with running it as a
business, and I take pride in our role in its survival. But it is clear
that a for-profit business model is not sustainable. Our faith in the
new model is reflected in both the sale and the Kovalchick family’s
ongoing role on the board of the new non-profit.”

Financial details of the purchase will remain confidential.

Brad Esposito, a 20-year veteran of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a
Genesee & Wyoming,,​ ​ led the effort to purchase the EBT,
along with longtime EBT enthusiasts David Brightbill, Lawrence
Biemiller, and Stephen Lane.

Backers of the new organization include three rail-industry and
rail-preservation heavyweights: Wick Moorman, former chairman and CEO of
Norfolk Southern and former CEO of Amtrak; Henry Posner III, a former
Conrail manager who is chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the
Railroad Development Corporation, of Pittsburgh; and Bennett Levin, a
retired mechanical and electrical engineer who owns the Juniata Terminal
Company, which operates two Pennsylvania Railroad E8 diesel locomotives
and three private cars.

Esposito will become the general manager of the railroad. He says the
EBT Foundation has a three-part mission. It’s committed, first, to
preserving and operating the East Broad Top as a steam railroad; second,
to educating visitors about the role of railroads in local and national
history; and, third, to promoting local and regional tourism and
economic growth.

Esposito says the new organization will immediately begin work on
several fronts. The EBT has been closed since late 2011, and before
operations can resume, the railroad will need to overhaul track and
equipment, including locomotives and passenger cars. A fire-suppression
system will be installed in the historic machine shops and roundhouse,
and several structural stabilization projects will be undertaken in the
railroad’s Rockhill Furnace complex.

“The East Broad Top is a unique national treasure unmatched anywhere in
the United States,” says Esposito. “It has been impressively preserved
for over 60 years by the Kovalchick family. We are excited to pick up
the torch and ensure that the railroad is preserved for future generations.”

“Our close partners will be the volunteers of the Friends of the East
Broad Top,” he says. “They have contributed countless hours of work and
significant amounts of money to help preserve the historic fabric of the
EBT since 1983.”

“Also, we look forward to working with the Rockhill Trolley Museum,”
says Esposito. The all-volunteer trolley museum dates to 1960 and
operates over the former Shade Gap Branch of the EBT. “This will be an
exciting opportunity to promote and further develop tourism in the area.”

“The East Broad Top is a remarkable survivor from the age of steam
railroading,” says Moorman. “I’m delighted to have the chance to be a
part of its revival, both for the preservation of such an important part
of our industrial heritage, and for the economic benefits that it will
provide to an area of Pennsylvania that is so closely linked to the
railroad industry.”

Levin notes that the EBT runs through a bucolic landscape almost
unchanged since the early 1900s. “The railroad’s historic fabric is an
important component of the region’s industrial archaeology, and the
educational possibilities here are almost limitless.”

The new organization’s advisors include Linn Moedinger, former president
of the Strasburg Rail Road — one of the most successful tourist
railroads in the U.S. — and Rod Case, a partner at the consulting firm
Oliver Wyman who leads their railway practice. Among the organizations
providing support is the Allegheny Ridge Corporation, which manages the
region’s state-designated Heritage Area. The corporation “is thrilled to
participate in the rebirth of this great asset,” says Astride McLanahan,
a longtime board member of the organization. “The EBT is a jewel in the
Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area and its revitalization will bring economic
opportunity to this rural community.”

Built from 1872 to 1874 to haul coal to a new iron furnace in the center
of the state, the 33-mile-long East Broad Top survived the collapse of
the local iron industry at the turn of the 20th century because the
top-quality coal it carried had found other markets, thanks in part to
close cooperation with the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the last of the
coal mines closed in 1956, the East Broad Top was purchased by the
Kovalchick Salvage Company of Indiana, Pa. Despite being in the scrap
business, the company left the railroad intact and in 1960 reopened a
portion of the line for steam-powered tourist trains that proved widely

With rails just three feet apart — 4’ 8 1⁄2” is the industry standard —
the EBT is the only original narrow-gauge railroad surviving east of the
Rocky Mountains, and it is well known as one of the world’s finest
preserved railways. The railroad’s shops complex, which dates to the
1880s and was greatly expanded from 1905 to 1907, is among the most
complete early-20th-century industrial facilities anywhere in the U.S.

Still in the railroad’s roundhouse in Rockhill Furnace are six
narrow-gauge steam locomotives built for the EBT by Philadelphia’s
Baldwin Locomotive Works between 1911 and 1920. They share the building
with the unique M-1 gas-electric, constructed at the railroad in 1927
with plans and parts from Philadelphia’s J.G. Brill Company, a leading
streetcar manufacturer, and Westinghouse Electric. Other EBT equipment
includes several passenger cars believed to date to the 1890s and
numerous steel freight cars built in the EBT shops. The East Broad Top
was the only American narrow gauge to convert to an all-steel freight
car fleet.

Remarkably, track remains in place over nearly the entire 33-mile main
line, which connected the coal mines in Robertsdale to the Pennsylvania
Railroad’s Great Broad Way in Mount Union.​ ​ The former PRR main line
is now Norfolk Southern’s core east-west route between Harrisburg and

“The East Broad Top Railroad is a unique historic asset that is a
national treasure representing our area’s rich railroad heritage,” says
Sen. Judy Ward, who represents southern Huntingdon County in the
Pennsylvania Senate. “The sale of this railroad to this group of
longtime EBT enthusiasts who are committed to preserving and operating
it as a steam railroad is very exciting news for the region because it
preserves this irreplaceable treasure for future generations while
opening up significant tourism and economic development opportunities.”

Says Posner: “August 13, 2020, will be the 60th anniversary of the East
Broad Top’s first reopening, which took place during the bicentennial of
the founding of what became the ‘twin boroughs’ of Orbisonia and
Rockhill Furnace. This was an era of revised expectations in the face of
the decline of the railroad industry nationwide. At that time Nick
Kovalchick could not have imagined the possibility of reopening the
entire line, but fortunately our industry’s renaissance has helped
create an environment in which this important and audacious project can
succeed. We are honored to follow in the footsteps of two generations of
the family that hasmade this all possible.”

“This will be a monumental undertaking,” says Esposito, “and I encourage
anyone interested in helping us to join the Friends of the East Broad
Top and come work on buildings, track and equipment.”

The railroad’s new website can be found at


About the EBT Foundation

The EBT Foundation, Inc., was incorporated in January 2020 to acquire,
preserve, and operate the East Broad Top Railroad. It aims to restore
the railroad for tourist operation and to educate visitors and fans
about the history of the railroad and the region. It also aims to expand
opportunities for tourism and economic development in and around
southern Huntingdon County. The foundation has filed an application for
501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service.

Founding board members are:

Henry Posner III,​ chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the
Railroad Development Corporation, of Pittsburgh. Initially, Mr. Posner
will chair the foundation’s board.

Wick Moorman,​ former chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern and former
CEO of Amtrak. Mr. Moorman will be the foundation’s first president.

Bennett Levin, ​ owner of the Juniata Terminal Company.

Brad Esposito, ​ former assistant general manager of the Buffalo &
Pittsburgh Railroad, a Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., company, and a longtime
member of the Friends of the East Broad Top. Mr. Esposito will be the
railroad’s general manager.

David Brightbill, ​ office manager of the East Broad Top Railroad and a
longtime volunteer at the Rockhill Trolley Museum. Mr. Brightbill will
be the foundation’s treasurer and will continue as the railroad’s office

Lawrence Biemiller, ​ a former senior writer at ​ The Chronicle of
Higher Education ​ and a member of the Friends of the East Broad Top
board. Mr. Biemiller will be the foundation’s secretary.

Questions we’re pretty sure will be frequently asked:

— Are you going to go all the way to Robertsdale? To Mount Union?

Right now our focus is on reopening the railroad as far as Colgate Grove
and on reconditioning locomotives and cars. In the future we look
forward with enthusiasm to discussing possibilities for expanding our
operations, which would be tremendously exciting. But before that we
have a lot of work to do on the portion of the EBT that’s operated since

— What about the Friends of the EBT and the trolley museum?

We are excited to have both the Friends and the Rockhill Trolley Museum
as partners, and we look forward to working very closely with both to
make Rockhill Furnace a great destination for railfans and casual
visitors alike. As you know, the trolley museum got its start very soon
after the East Broad Top reopened in 1960, and its volunteers have built
a tremendous operation that was able to survive and grow during the
railroad’s recent shutdown. We look forward to planning and
cross-promoting events that will benefit both the railroad and the
trolley museum.

And the Friends have been invaluable. Much less of the East Broad Top
would survive today for us to acquire without their tireless work to
stabilize buildings and equipment. And their efforts to record the
history of the line have been just as important. It’s hard to imagine
that any other 33-mile railroad has ever had the benefit of so much
well-researched interest.

— Are you connected to the East Broad Top Railroad Preservation Association?

We are not associated with the East Broad Top Railroad Preservation

— Are you going to preserve all of the surviving hoppers?

Our goal is to preserve as much of the East Broad Top as we can
responsibly maintain and to present visitors with a full picture of the
railroad as it appeared in common-carrier days. But at this point many
of the remaining hoppers have been sitting out in the weather for more
than 60 years, and they’re in rough shape. It may not be possible to
preserve them all.

— Will you own No. 3 in Mount Union?

Mr. Kovalchick sold No. 3 before we began negotiations with him,
although we believe it is still in the Mount Union enginehouse.

— How soon can we ride to the picnic grove? What will the fare be?

As soon as we’re certain we can safely carry passengers, we’ll make an
announcement. Our tentative plan is to use the M-1 at first, and
possibly a coach or caboose, while we continue overhauls on other
equipment. We have not yet discussed fares. But we emphasize that all
our plans are tentative at this stage.

— Will you bring back the Polar Express?

We will certainly offer some kind of Christmas train, but probably not
in 2020.

— What locomotive will you restore first?

We’re currently evaluating several locomotives, with advice and help
from people who have lots of experience with steam locomotives. While we
understand and appreciate that many people have their own favorite EBT
engines that they would like us to return to operation, we’ll have to
make our decisions based on the engines’ condition and our operating
needs. Our hope is that we will eventually be able to use all six
locomotives, along with the M-1, the M-3, our speeder cars, and diesels
M-4, M-6, and M-7, but that will take some time.

East Broad Top Railroad timeline

1856: The East Broad Top Railroad receives a charter from the
Pennsylvania legislature.

1872: After numerous delays, construction of the railroad begins in
Mount Union. Shortly beforehand, the directors decide to save money by
building a three-foot-gauge line. This allows them to use sharper
curves, lighter bridges, and smaller rail than would be the case with a
standard-gauge line, but means the EBT cannot interchange cars with
other railroads.

1873: Construction reaches Rockhill Furnace and passenger service begins.

1874: The rails reach what becomes the coal-mining company town of
Robertsdale on Broad Top Mountain. The mountain’s folded seams of
semi-bituminous coal will eventually be riddled with tunnels stretching
far from the initial mine entrance behind the Robertsdale station.

1876: Production begins in the new Rockhill iron furnace. Unlike earlier
furnaces in the area, which produced around 800 tons a year, the new
furnace is capable of 28,800 tons a year.

1900: The first fire-brick plant opens in Mount Union. Transporting coal
and ganister rock to Mount Union’s fire-brick plants becomes a key part
of the EBT’s business after the Rockhill iron furnace finds itself
unable to compete with more modern operations and better iron ores in
the upper Midwest.

1903: Robert Siebert becomes the EBT’s president and begins a major
modernization campaign that will eventually encompass track, bridges,
locomotives, rolling stock, and repair facilities. The EBT as we know it
today is largely the product of Siebert’s policies and plans.

1906: The current EBT station is built in Rockhill Furnace. To avoid
confusion with another destination called “Rockhill,” the station is
eventually named “Orbisonia,” after the larger town on the other side of
Blacklog Creek. The station receives its current platform canopy in 1909.

1911: The EBT receives No. 12, first of what would be six engines with
the 2-8-2, or “Mikado,” wheel arrangement. The newest, No. 18, is
delivered in 1920.1913: The EBT orders its first 10 steel hopper cars
from a Cincinnati manufacturer. The railroad later builds well over 200
hopper cars from scratch in the Rockhill shops complex.

1924: The railroad builds a crane in Mount Union for transferring timber
from its own cars to standard-gauge cars. The Timber Transfer becomes
famous in the 1930s when the EBT starts using it to lift standard-gauge
cars off their wheels and set them on narrow-gauge wheelsets to be
pulled in EBT trains.

1925: A new coal-cleaning plant opens in Mount Union. The plant is
served by a dual-gauge yard with three rails for every track,
accommodating both narrow-gauge and standard-gauge cars. This allowed
the EBT to load coal easily for customers elsewhere.

1927: The EBT builds the M-1 using plans and parts from the J.G. Brill
Co., a trolley manufacturer, and Westinghouse Electric. The M-1’s
250-h.p. gasoline engine powers a generator that feeds electricity to
motors on all four axles. A 12-seat passenger compartment accommodates
riders, while a freight compartment carries packages and the U.S. mail.
It is the only such gas-electric unit ever built for an American
narrow-gauge railroad.

1936: The EBT operates its first trip for railfans.

1942: The EBT builds its last new branch, a steep spur track up to a
North American Refractories Company ganister quarry on Jack’s Mountain.

1953: Regular passenger service ends after the Post Office begins moving
mail by truck.  Commuter runs for coal miners survive until the
following year.

1955: The coal business having dwindled to almost nothing, the railroad
files for abandonment in November.

1956: The last mainline runs, pulled by No. 17, operate on April 6. The
last switching moves in Mount Union, by No. 3, follow on April 13.
Shortly thereafter, the Kovalchick Salvage Company buys the assets of
the railroad and the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company. But almost nothing
is scrapped.

1960: As Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace approach their bicentennial
celebration, representatives of the planning committee ask Nick
Kovalchick if he will put an EBT locomotive on display for the event. He
offers to run trains instead. On August 13, 1960, the railroad reopens
with trains pulled in one direction by No. 12, nicked “Millie” after
Nick’s daughter, and in the other by No. 15. The line is an immediate hit.

1961: The EBT builds a wye to turn trains, as well as picnic facilities,
at the site of a former spur track serving a clay pit.1963: The Rockhill
Trolley Museum opens and begins laying standard-gauge track on the EBT’s
former Shade Gap Branch.

1971: Abandonment is formally rescinded.

1982: Friends of the EBT is organized, initially for model railroaders.

1986: FEBT leases the Robertsdale station and buys the neighboring Old
Post Office.

2002: FEBT volunteers begin the first of many restoration projects in
Rockhill, the section shed at the south end of the yard.

2011: At the end of a busy season featuring both Thomas the Tank Engine
and the Polar Express, the EBT’s final train of the year operates on
December 23. The railroad then closes, although FEBT volunteers continue
stabilization and restoration projects and occasional public tours are

2020: The EBT Foundation purchases the railroad from the Kovalchicks.

For a more detailed history of the EBT, see Lee Rainey and Frank Kyper’s
excellent 1982 book “East Broad Top.”


Russ Norris, MMR
Cape Cod, Massachusetts

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