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Back on track

Foundation, volunteers breathe new life into East Broad Top Railroad

Employee Nicholas Brightbill uses the M-4 to shove a string of EBT hopper cars that hadn’t been moved in 15 years. They were moved so a logging crew could get in to clear the right of way at the south end of the Rockhill Furnace yard. Courtesy photo

The “to-do” list at the East Broad Top Railroad in Rock Hill Furnace remains long, but volunteers like Lance Myers of Altoona and Jason Lamb of Tyrone are enthusiastic about the narrow-gauge railroad’s progress and future.

After eight years of closure, a new nonprofit foundation purchased the Huntingdon County railroad from the Kovalchick family. The new foundation is working collaboratively with volunteers of the Friends of the East Broad Top and the Rockhill Trolley Museum in pursuit of the ultimate goal to return Baldwin-built steam locomotives to operating condition. Work sessions organized by the FEBT help stabilize buildings, clear and repair track and preserve buildings at the National Historic landmark.

“It’s pretty great news. I’m very excited about it,” Myers said.

Myers, 37, discovered the EBT as a child and has volunteered with FEBT for about 20 years.

Lamb, who is from California, “has railroading in my veins,” he said, recalling a recent conversation with his mother in which she revealed he took his first train as a 2-month-old. His father had been a volunteer for a railroad museum in southern California for years before he was born. His parents shared their passion for trains with him.

“My full-time job is managing the Everett Railroad. So, at the EBT, when I volunteer, I get to do things I don’t get to do (at Everett). I like working on locomotives — all of them — diesel and steam — in a mechanical capacity. I’m not in a leadership role. I’m just helping to shake out 60 years of rust and dirt.”

“I’m very happy to be a part of it and help in any small way I can,” Lamb said. “I’m very happy to help them in their very daunting task. I’m proud to have a small part in it.”

About 40 volunteers turned out for a work session in June, said Lawrence Biemiller, communications manager for the East Broad Top Railroad and Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad. Taking a divide and conquer approach, five groups tackled different projects, including the cutting of brush along the line and around the yard. Another group worked on the roundhouse track, and others painted various buildings using at least 20 gallons of paint, and replaced flooring in the machine shop, according to a work session recap on the FEBT website.

The spirit of collaboration and contribution has spread to the FEBT.

“Membership in the Friends of the EBT has mushroomed,” Biemiller said. “Friends had about 750 members before the announcement and now it’s up to 1,150. We actually had to limit the number of volunteers wanting to come for the June work session. We are very hopeful we will rely more on volunteers for a number of projects that will let our paid crew members concentrate on other things.”

While some volunteers — like Myers and Lamb — are within an easy drive, others come from much farther away, such as Ohio and Washington, D.C., Biemiller said.

The EBT has 12 employees, five who are full time and seven who are part time for the summer, Biemiller said. Additionally, a contractor was hired to stabilize a building.

“We are doing our best to fulfill the other part of the foundation’s mission — to be an economic development resource in this end of the county. Our paid employees are buying and eating lunch in local establishments, and our contractor is buying lumber locally.”

A locomotive engineer for Norfolk Southern, Myers said he finds volunteering very satisfying and rewarding.

“Ever since I learned to drive when I was 16, I’ve been coming to visit and I’ve volunteered for about 20 years now both at the railroad and the Trolley Museum,” he said. He’s tackled a variety of projects from the simple — re-painting switch targets — to the complicated — creating the railroad’s first website in the early 2000s.

And it hasn’t all been work. Myers and other volunteers rebuild motorized, speeder cars that track gangs used to get around the rails more efficiently. Myers and other volunteers rebuilt the motors and created a track ride using the cars in the yard.

“Not a lot of people have had a chance to ride on a car like that. Many times, people have commented that they enjoyed (the speed car) more than the train ride,” Myers said.

Such an interactive experience is key, Biemiller said, to preserving the passion.

What the EBT offers, Lamb said, “is very rare and unheard of. They have a lot of really cool cars, locomotives and track. All the buildings are there. Nothing has been added from other railroads — it’s all original stock. They are trying to preserve and keep this time capsule intact while also making it run. They are preserving the railroad and putting life back into it. I think they will get it done.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

If you go

Extensive repairs have closed the EBT to visitors for now, but the gift shop is open for limited hours and also is online. Special events are planned for Aug. 13-15 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the railroad’s first opening. While train rides have sold out, officials said visitors will be able to take trolley rides and tour the machine shops and updated roundhouse.

Ride tickets were limited and access to other areas is by a timed ticket to comply with social distancing measures. To learn more, visit the East Broad Top Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ebtrr/ and its website at https://eastbroadtop.com/

Also on Aug. 13-15, the Orbisonia-Rockhill Volunteer Fire Company and the Orbisonia Lions Club will mark the 260th anniversary of the founding of Orbisonia with various events on the grounds across from the EBT station and the Lions property in Orbisonia.

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