Save This Railroad
IN AN ARTICLE TITLED “THE LOST LANGUAGE of Trains” in the Winter 1995 Invention & Technology , Peter Tuttle described how the traditions of steam railroading live on in Chama, New Mexico, where workers continue venerable practices and pass along ancient lore amid a physical setting that is a mixture of old and new. The town, the yard, the enginehouse, and the rolling stock at Chama present a fair living picture of the steam age, but an even better collection of the era’s physical artifacts exists far to the east, in the heart of America’s former industrial belt. Some 110 miles east of Pittsburgh, in Orbisonia, Pennsylvania, stands the most complete and original preserved railroad in the United States: the East Broad Top (EBT). In this obscure hamlet, a true company-owned town, Father Time locked the front door and walked away four decades ago, leaving behind the kind of package that industrial historians dream about finding. It’s all so well preserved that trains can and do sometimes run on it, carrying tourists (see “To Plan a Trip” on page 46).
There are, of course, thousands of historic industrial sites in this country. Yet just about all of them are deficient in some critical area. Perhaps the original buildings are in place but the machines have been taken out and scrapped; replacement machinery, even if it can be found and even if it is very similar, is not original. Maybe the auxiliary pieces—tools, furniture, lighting fixtures, and so on—are re-creations or replacements. Or else the buildings, while “original,” have been modified; such modifications are often substantial, like the three-story shop that is now one story, or the 1865 mill that has oversize windows cut in during the 1920s. Yes, all these changes can be corrected, but then we have a partial replica, and the actual historic fabric is in the minority. If many alterations have taken place over the years, we face the original-ax quandary: three new heads and six new handles. Certainly the many-times-reconstructed ax looks like the original, but it is not what it purports to be.
The more a historic building or site is reconstructed, the more of a fabrication it becomes. Like a movie set, it creates the appearance of the past, but it is not the past; it has no soul. I have wandered around Colonial Williamsburg numerous times to admire the fine shops, homes, and public buildings. Perhaps it was the tourists in modern informal garb, or the knowledge that so many structures are re-creations, or the too-tidy streets, but somehow I never felt that I was actually touching another age. During my several visits to the East Broad Top, I have felt not just in touch but immersed in time past. From a historical perspective the East Broad Top is all soul. In the backwoods of Pennsylvania, history can be seen, heard, and smelled.
My introduction to the EBT came in the late summer of 1951, when traffic was good because of the Korean War and coal trains were rolling on a daily schedule. I was midway through high school in Cincinnati at the time and already a full-blown rail enthusiast. I devoured each new issue of Trains and Railroad magazines, both of which featured articles on the diminutive EBT from time to time. Why was so much attention paid to a thirty-mile short line in west-central Pennsylvania? Because it was unique: the last slim-gauge line in the eastern half of the country, and one of the very last in the nation. For some unexplainable reason the mere mention of those two magic words—narrow gauge—seems to supercharge the already excitable brain of the typical rail buff. Being a true believer, I was determined to visit Mecca, which in this case was spelled O-R-B-I-S-O-N-I-A.
My parents did not share my enthusiasm, nor would they permit me to go on such an adventure. All that way alone? No sir! And your grades aren’t that great; you need to stay home and study more.
But Mom … But Dad …
No! Anyway, such a trip would cost too much; you should save your money for college.
True believers, however, never give up. I persisted. I pestered and pleaded and pouted. I had given up smoking months before to save money for my hobby and so showed my parents I was ready to sacrifice for a trip to the Promised Land.
The big break came in July. My best friend, Herb Pence, was planning a trip to Pittsburgh to ride the inclines and streetcars. And his parents said it was O.K. His parents were very conservative and strict, and they said it was O.K. Herb and I could travel together and watch out for each other, and we would be gone for only a few days, and it wouldn’t cost very much, and Herb’s parents said it was O.K. After several weeks of this monologue, my parents did the only sensible thing parents can do: they gave in.
COACH TRAVEL IN THOSE DAYS WAS VERY reasonable, a room at the YMCA was a bargain, and American cities were far less threatening than they are now. The trip turned out to be both safe and inexpensive. As usual, my parents had been dead wrong and totally unreasonable. (Just ask any teenager; they know how dumb parents can be.) After exhausting Pittsburgh’s smoky atmosphere and its numerous streetcar lines, I boarded the night mail train late one evening. It was all mail and express cars except for a single dingy coach at the rear. Most of the passengers appeared to be railroad shop men bound for Altoona, the main repair site for the Pennsylvania Railroad system. I would ride beyond Altoona some fifty miles to Mount Union, the northern terminus of the EBT. There I would catch the 8:25 A.M. train for Woodvale.
Unfortunately the main-line train was running late, and I began to wonder if I would make the connection. I was the only passenger to step off at the lonely Mount Union platform. There were only minutes to spare, and I was in something of a panic because I didn’t know where to go and there was no one to ask. I turned around several times, trying to decide what to do; then I noticed a faded red-and-gilt sign over in the weeds. It read TO EBT TRAINS, with an arrow pointing down. I walked over toward the sign and saw an overgrown stairway leading down to a small rail yard. My feeling of discovery was hardly less than what Howard Carter must have felt when he peered into King Tutankhamen’s long-sealed tomb.
My moment of joy vanished when I saw no waiting train. It had left, and my one chance to ride the narrow gauge had vanished with it! I flew down the stairway and saw a middle-aged couple seated in a pre-war sedan. They smiled and beckoned me to come over.
“You looking for the train?”
“Yes. Where is it?”
“It’s running late. Yardman told us the engine broke down. They’re firing up one of the standbys, but they have to pull the busted one back to Orbisonia before heading this way, so it will be at least another hour before she gets here. Want to sit with us and wait?” The husband was another rail enthusiast who had come to see the EBT. His wife patiently indulged his interest. They were pleasant people, and we soon became friends.
After a while we could hear a distant whistle. That must be her coming now! More minutes passed, and then the whistle was much nearer, and we could hear the labored exhaust of the slow-moving engine. Soon the grimy locomotive and trail of grimier cars nosed into the yard. There was no hurry to get aboard, for the crew had to drop off the loaded hopper cars and pick up a string of empties. More time was spent coupling up a standard-gauge boxcar, precariously perched on a set of narrow-gauge trucks. Throughout all this I was transfixed as if witnessing a scene from the Bible. It was, after all, my first encounter with a narrow-gauge steam railway in action.
Around ten o’clock the southbound train was finally assembled. We were seated in a wooden coach at the rear—actually a combined car that also handled express freight and served as the caboose. The conductor, who seemed nearly as ancient as the car, had a fussy manner; he was friendly enough but definitely a worrier. Throughout the trip he fretted over that big standard-gauge boxcar just ahead of the coach. It weaved and swayed over the rough tracks, and he was convinced it was going to roll over and throw us into the ditch. He kept signaling the engine to slow down, but the crew ignored him. More than once he threatened to pull the air on those damn fools up front, but he never did, and we made it into Orbisonia just a little more than an hour behind time. Before we came to a full stop, the conductor was on the ground and going forward to have it out with the engine crew.
There was a twenty-minute layover at this point, roughly midway in our journey. I decided to look around at the wonderful jumble of wooden, brick, and stone buildings: These were the main shops of the EBT; they looked more like a museum than a repair facility. Everything had the look of age and long service. Yet this was no fantasy or re-creation; it was simply an obsolete yet functional car and locomotive shop. I was too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate what I was seeing, but I knew it was something important, something I wanted to see again.
TWO YEARS LATER I RETURNED, THIS TIME IN COM pany with Herb Pence, traveling in an old Plymouth borrowed from Herb’s grandfather. Hard times were settling in on coal country after the end of the Korean War. The EBT was cutting back, but when we rolled into Orbisonia the repair shops were still active, and no one seemed to mind a pair of teenagers wandering around taking photos and generally being nosy. Outside on a siding a few men were replacing steel plates on some hopper cars. An engine lazily shifted cars around the yard, and a few trackmen were rebuilding a switch. All of this was wonderful enough to behold, but I was not prepared for what stood waiting around the corner.
At the center of the complex was the machine shop—a huge barnlike wooden structure with two smokestacks reaching far above the pitched roof. A pair of large wooden doors had been opened to let in the late-summer sun. Inside was a machine shop that looked as if it had been set up during the Civil War (it actually dated from about 1910). I had never seen so many overhead belts and pulleys. I had seen a number of old machine tools in shops around Cincinnati, but never such a concentration of antique equipment where nothing appeared to be of modern vintage. A stationary steam engine provided the main power, although a central electric motor was sometimes used to run the belts. The benches were cluttered with hammers, cold chisels, files, taps, templates, broken parts, and all the normal workshop accumulation of several decades.
My college years left little time and no money for travel. I thought of the EBT and read about its abandonment in 1956 but was too preoccupied with my education to be more than a distant, passive observer. Once I was out of school, I began a new, all-consuming struggle to establish myself in the museum profession. By the middle 1960s, though, things started to loosen up, and I had time and money for an occasional trip. I went back to Orbisonia.
The town had a certain ghostly quality about it; except for a small tourist-train operation, the EBT had closed down. The buildings were a trifle more timeworn, but the shop complex was much as I had left it in 1953. Unfortunately, while it was possible to enter the station and the roundhouse, most of the other buildings were locked up tight. The glorious machine shop was so closed up that I could barely even see anything through the windows.
Yet here it was—the perfect preservation, where everything was left behind just as it had been and everything on the property belonged there. The engines, cars, track, and buildings all are original to the site, and they all belong together. It is not a collection of odds and ends from across the countryside, as one commonly finds in museums or historic villages. How many preserved blacksmith shops have you seen where the tools have been gathered from a dozen sources by people who were not really sure how many hammers in what sizes a regular smith might employ? At the EBT the guesswork is eliminated, because the true stuff of history is already in place. There is no conjecture about what went where or what was used, because it’s already there. The machine shop is complete, the tool room is fully furnished, even the parts bins are well stocked. Simply put, it is a time capsule. It is preservation perfect.
During its working history the EBT was not a very important railroad. It was just a small short line, a minor element in the national rail system. But its survival as a record of the steam-railroad era gives it an importance it never achieved in its active years—just like King Tut, a minor pharaoh whose memory would be entirely forgotten except for the miraculous preservation of his tomb.