I learned that back in the 1870’s when East Broad Top began, they were cutting edge for their time. They were one of the earliest narrow-gauge railroads in the country. The builders chose to go with the narrow-gauge rather than standard because it was less expensive to build, and they could incorporate sharper curves and lighter bridges. There was a downside to this unique size, however, since they were not able to swap cars with the other more common standard gauge rail lines. I also learned that the railroad was used for passenger service as well as for moving products such as pig iron and coal.
I am sure there are many local families with East Broad Top connections, but I spoke to one recently with a very interesting story. A local resident, Samuel Price, recalled hearing the story of his great grandfather, Richard Clark, who became an orphan at two years of age after losing both of his parents to Typhoid Fever. He eventually found work at the Rockhill Coal & Iron Company in the not-so-glamourous water boy position. Every day he faithfully fulfilled his duties, eventually working his way up to running the small steam locomotive. His boss was Joe Blake, who was a rather stern-looking man. Each day Joe’s daughter, Gertrude, would come to bring her father his lunch. Richard and Gertrude met each other on these daily trips and as each day passed, the daily anticipation of seeing each other grew. Eventually the two fell in love, presumably earning her father’s approval, true love prevailed and the two were married.
Richard then transferred to the East Broad Top Railroad where he eventually became an engineer. He built quite a reputation for himself there since his train was always on time. He retired after 47 years of dedicated service. Gertrude and Richard had a daughter, Mary, who married Samuel G. Price, a sign painter. They had a son Richard C. Price who carried on his father’s artistic talents, teaching art for 35 years at Rothrock, Penn Highlands and Lewistown Area High School. Both Samuel and Richard, father, and son, painted many of the East Broad Top signs. Although they have been touched up over the years, their original designs can still be seen today at the station.
Thus is the railroading lineage of the man I alluded to earlier, Samuel Price. You may know him best as the mastermind behind our 6 feet tall, painted fiberglass geese that can be found across our two-county area, and Executive Director of Community Partnerships. Sam stated, “Growing up our family often took the train, my dad became a model railroader, and my dad and mom were volunteers at the Lewistown Train Station.” Sam, his wife Kristen, and their two daughters, Madison, and Mackenzie have carried on the family’s tradition by taking rail vacations.
By 1955 the coal business had dwindled to nearly nothing and filed for abandonment. This is where we find another Mifflin County connection. Kovalchick Salvage Company, the same company that owns the scrap yard in Burnham, purchased the abandoned railroad and everything with it for scrap. As the story goes, however, when Nick Kovalchick arrived at the railroad to see what he had purchased, he immediately fell in love with the train, stating that it looked just like a toy train he had wished for as a child, but had never received since the cost was out of reach. He decided not to scrap or destroy that train or any of the other train engines, cars, parts, or machine shops. He finally owned the train he had always wanted, only life sized. The Kovalchick’s opened the railroad as a tourist attraction in 1960. It continued as such until 2011 when the railroad was closed to visitors.
Fortunately, there was a group of volunteers who saw the historic value of the railroad and formed the Friends of the East Broad top Railroad. They worked hard to maintain the equipment and the structures such as the roundhouse, machine shop, and others. Their hope was to see it once again functioning and open to visitors. Their hard work and dedication paid off and the railroad was once again reopened to visitors.
I highly encourage you to make the short drive to East Broad Top, ride the train, and be sure to take the behind-the-scenes tour. I was excited to tour the roundhouse since I too have a railroad connection. My father once worked in the roundhouse at the Enola trainyard. I guarantee you will be snapping a lot of photos and learning many interesting railroad facts.
Hopefully my excitement for this site is showing, and you too will want to take advantage of this wonderful piece of American history. Oh, and while you are there, also pay a visit to the Rockhill Trolley Museum, which is located close by. Tickets can be purchased at eastbroadtop.com. I will close with a light-hearted train quote from Charles Barkley, “Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train.”
Rhonda S. Kelley, Executive Director, Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce