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Plans unveiled for East Broad Top

Mirror photo by Patt Keith / More than 250 people gathered at the East Broad Top Railroad to learn about a new nonprofit organization that will reopen the historic site this summer, with several events and expanded operations planned for next year.

ROCKHILL FURNACE — Fueled by prominent rail-industry leaders and rail fans, a new nonprofit organization aspires to propel the East Broad Top Railroad into a multi-purpose entertainment venue that preserves the National Historic Landmark, stimulates regional tourism and preserves its historical industrial significance.

More than 250 local residents, rail buffs, tourism leaders and members of the new EBT Foundation Inc. celebrated Friday as it was announced that the East Broad Top Railroad will reopen for several events in 2020 and hopes to resume regular operations in 2021.

On hand were founding EBT board members:

— Henry Posner III, chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the Railroad Development Corp. of Pittsburgh, who will serve as chairman.

— Charles Wickliffe “Wick” Moorman IV, former chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern and former CEO of Amtrak, who will be president.

— Bennett Levin, owner of the Juniata Terminal Co.

— 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, who 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, who will serve as the foundation’s treasurer and will continue as the railroad’s office manager.

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

Promoted earlier in the week on social media, the announcement drew more people than organizers expected and affirmed their belief in the viability of their vision, Biemiller said.

Two brothers from Derry, Josh and Billy Landis, saw the post on Facebook and made a spontaneous decision to drive two hours to attend.

“It’s great and very exciting,” Josh Landis said after the announcement. The brothers come from a family of railroaders and have visited East Broad Top “ever since they were born,” Billy Landis said. Their father is a member of the Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad.

The EBT Foundation Inc. purchased about 27 miles of rail line, the narrow-gauge railroad’s shops, rolling stock and equipment from Joseph Kovalchick. Financial terms remain confidential. Joseph’s father, Nick Kovalchick, of the Kovalchick Salvage Co., purchased the assets of the railroad and the Rockhill Iron and Coal Co. in 1956.

The elder Kovalchick reopened and ran the trains on Aug. 13, 1960, to help celebrate the 1960 bicentennial of Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace. This summer EBT Foundation plans to recognize the 60th anniversary of that first tourism event.

In his remarks Friday, Joseph Kovalchick said his family preserved the railroad’s history — despite many people’s assertions that their intent was to scrap the assets.

“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. … I take pride in our role in its survival,” he said.

Astride McLanahan of Hollidaysburg, who is with the Allegheny Ridge Corp., called the EBT “a hidden gem” in the Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area. Jane Sheffield, executive director of the Allegheny Ridge Corp., will represent the organization on the new EBT board of directors.

“It’s the right people coming together at the right time to work with Joe (Kovalchick),” she said after the formal announcement. “They’ve gathered together railroad royalty, and they’ve created a tremendous synergy.”

The EBT will be one more reason for rail buffs to visit the region, Sheffield said. It joins other top-shelf attractions such as the Horseshoe Curve and the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona and the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Gallitzin.

For Mindy Gulden Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania of Harrisburg, seeing a “third rebirth” of the EBT provides hope for the future. The EBT was on the organization’s “at risk” list since 1992.

Gulden Crawford fought with her publisher to keep the EBT in her recently published book titled “Historic Pennsylvania: A Tour of the State’s Top 100 National Landmarks.” The publisher felt it should be excluded because at that time it wasn’t operating. However, she insisted it stay in the book because people could still come and visit. Now, people will once again be able to ride the narrow rails and hear the whistle blow on the EBT.

The sound of train whistles has been missed, said Carolyn Bair, who attended Friday with her husband, Guy. The couple live in Rockhill Furnace.

“You can see the roof of our house from here,” she said, pointing her gloved hand. “We are so excited to hear it will be running again. We’ve missed hearing the train whistles.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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