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Steaming Past Autumn Foliage On Two Vintage Excursion Trains

East Broad Top Railroad

September 07, 1997|KARL ZIMMERMANN | Zimmermann's 12th book on trains, "Domeliners: Yesterday's Trains of Tomorrow," is due in November from Kalmbach Books. He is based in New Jersey

ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. — In remote, rural Huntingdon County, Aughwick Creek meanders through cow pastures and brushes up against mountains with tough, gritty names--Backlog, Jacks and, beyond that, Broad Top, once rich in coal. Nestled in this south-central Pennsylvania valley with its little river is a railroad, also little, called East Broad Top. Narrow gauge and just 33 miles long, the railroad is a remarkable survivor from the age of steam, iron and coal. By a kind of miracle, East Broad Top, which opened in 1873, is almost perfectly preserved, as if in amber.

On a brisk October day, pale sun slants into the hollows and highlights the reds and yellows of oaks and maples on the hills around Rockhill Furnace, which stands on the banks of the Aughwick (pronounced OG-wik) and is the railroad's headquarters town. Fog burns off as the morning warms, but fragrant coal smoke lingers, drifting from the stacks of a quartet of steam locomotives, all moving smartly about a yard and shop complex roughly a century old.

The East Broad Top's Fall Spectacular is about to begin. An annual celebration of vintage railroading, the event is a two-day, three-ring circus of steam, played out against a backdrop of brilliant autumn foliage. The railroad operates on weekends all summer long and into the fall. But once a year, on the Saturday and Sunday of Columbus Day weekend (Oct. 11 and 12 this year), comes the Spectacular, which is not an overstatement.

On these occasions, a dozen trains run each day. There are passenger trains and freight trains, with cabooses and gondolas you can ride in. And, in the last few years, "coal trains" (rebuilt hopper cars, sans the actual cargo) have been added, recreating the EBT's days as a common carrier. Some trains run "doubleheaded," with two locomotives. The colorful hills are alive with the sound of whistling. For photographers, it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

The engines, all built by the Baldwin Locomotive Co. during the early 1900s, are elegantly tricked out and brightly buffed-up for the occasion: shiny black boilers, wheels lined in white, the letters "E.B.T." writ large in orange across the flanks of the tenders. Through four decades these engines mostly toted black hopper cars heaped with coal from the rich Broad Top field. For the last 37 years they've hauled only people--casual tourists out for a train ride, picnickers, rail buffs and industrial archeologists seeking a window on the past.

On a chilly October morning, the coal-burning stove imparts a welcome and fragrant warmth to the interior of an ancient wooden coach that once carried lunch-pail-toting miners to work at Robertsdale. When the EBT bought the car in 1916, it was already well used. Outside, late-boarding passengers--women and men, boys and girls, none smudged with coal as their predecessors might have been--scurry across the cobblestone platform in front of the handsome clapboard depot; built in 1907, it once housed the railroad's general offices upstairs. (Though it actually stands in Rockhill Furnace, the station is called Orbisonia, the name of the larger town just across the Aughwick River.)

At the rear of the train is the parlor car that came to the EBT in 1907 (again, secondhand) to serve as the railroad president's private car. Now anyone can ride in its wicker chairs for a $1 surcharge. Up ahead is locomotive No. 12, wreathed in steam. Two hoots of the whistle and the train is off on its 10-mile round trip to Colgate Grove. Wheels rumble on rail beneath ancient floorboards, and wood creaks as the coach rolls north. Coal smoke wafts through the open doors of the baggage compartment. Views are bucolic, with small farmhouses dotting a landscape of fields, all against a backdrop of mountains ablaze with fiery fall colors.

Back at the Orbisonia depot, the social side of the Spectacular is in full swing. The event has much the community feel of a county fair, with Boy Scouts stirring up a big, black kettle of ham and bean soup and selling hot dogs. A church group offers 10 varieties of pies and other baked goods and sandwiches, while local farmers sell apples and cider.

Though the first train doesn't leave until 9:30 a.m., it's worth arriving hours earlier, before the crowds, to watch the time-honored rituals of steam railroading played out at a measured pace. Some devotees even turn up the afternoon before to be on hand as the four locomotives undergo the magical transformation from cold, inert steel to living machine. One of the great charms of the EBT is that the public is invited in to watch this sooty, real work of railroading, still done in the original way in the original place. The doors to the eight-stall brick roundhouse are open, both literally and figuratively.

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