“The Current Chapter”
The last time I saw the East Broad Top under steam was October 29th, 2011, during a freak pre-winter blizzard fondly referred to as Snowtober. The storm produced unusually early season snowfall across the northeastern United States, breaking records for total accumulations. In fact, in some cities Halloween was cancelled and children were left without treats. Two months later, the tourist excursion season ended, and the East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company suspended operations indefinitely. The narrow gauge railroad has been dormant since, their doors locked. Once touted as the oldest operating narrow gauge steam train at its original location in America, water has not boiled inside a locomotive for five years. But I never stopped going back to visit this historic landmark. Face-to-face in the presence of absence; the current chapter.
Since its most recent closure, I have been routinely visiting the towns of Orbisonia, Mount Union, Robertsdale, and all points of interest in between. Regardless of season, weather conditions, or time of day, it is my mission to photograph and document the facilities as they exist present day. With permission from EBT management and ownership, access to the railroad complex has been graciously granted to capture photographs of these spectacular scenes.
The absence shows a presence, and the ghosts are there, the images are there, the souls are there.”
The roundhouse is there, the turntable is there, the locomotives are all there, as is the collection of rolling stock, the backshops, the tracks, and the entire infrastructure. Arguably the most intact and preserved steam railroad in the country, possibly the world, every component of the bygone era of coal and the industrial revolution remains. But there is no operational activity. The silence is deafening and all encompassing. One comes to Orbisonia; it’s empty. You can barely imagine or fathom what is there. But that absence shows a presence, and the ghosts are there, the images are there, the souls are there. The magnitude of what happened is there, even if unseen. It is too big to understand—an artifact that someone held, someone worked on, someone owned; a connection with something from long ago.
It is the ultimate time machine. Notice the textural details in these images—worn stone and brick walls, patterns and shades of rust, fatigue and failure of steel, distressed wood, faded paint, sagging structures, the tarnish and patina. Nature has clearly taken its toll and made a home within this lonesome landscape. Originally built in the nineteenth century, this once thriving railroad now stands lonely and silent. Locomotives and rolling stock await the day skilled workers might breathe new life into the railroad. A national treasure; a gateway to the past. Still standing, and remembered.
Nestled in the hills of south central Pennsylvania is a complex that time has left behind. When visiting the East Broad Top today, you will find a ghost-like railroad, originally closed over 50 years ago, but never scrapped. Sitting quietly ever since, the EBT is a slice of history that, unlike many other lines, was left as is. Now the same rails that once carried trains of coal peacefully rust in the forest. In this time capsule of American industrial history, you can still find work started over a half century ago waiting patiently for the skilled hands, long gone, to return to the lathes, drills and forges.
There is no noise other than the wind outside rattling the steel roll-up doors, or the chatter of vintage glass windowpanes.”
Being on the inside is a surreal experience. It’s truly overwhelming; a great privilege and honor. This is hallowed ground, which is rarely trod upon. One can only imagine what it might have been like back in the day for the men who labored within these walls. I am surrounded by machinery that lived a life before me—I’m the youngest object present. When I find myself alone in the roundhouse and shops, the absence of sound is nearly maddening. There is no noise other than the wind outside rattling the steel roll-up doors, or the chatter of vintage glass windowpanes. A heavy coating of dust covers all surfaces and artistic woven cobwebs are in almost every corner. The air is musty and stale. It’s cold and dark. But to the history buff and hard-core steam railfan in me, it is pure paradise. Everywhere I turn, I see beauty. Like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, it’s almost impossible to capture the grandeur and splendor of the East Broad Top. If only I could travel back in time to this much simpler and nostalgic era.
But this is not a story of gloom and doom, despair, loss, or hope abandoned. The Friends of the East Broad Top volunteer their time on weekends throughout the year to stabilize and restore buildings, tracks and rolling stock in Orbisonia and Robertsdale. They monitor the condition of structures, stored trains, and other artifacts, and work to ensure the EBT is well preserved. The Friends promote public awareness of this unique historic site, publish a quarterly magazine and organize meetings and programs for FEBT members, including an annual Fall Reunion, and special public events that celebrate the region and its heritage.
There is also rebirth and reassignment. Hopper cars that once carried coal and rock from the mines in the Robertsdale area through the hub in Orbisonia to the interchange at Mount Union continue to be used elsewhere. The White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska, the Sumpter Valley Railroad in Oregon, and the Cumbres & Toltec and Durango & Silverton railroads in Colorado have the cars on their active maintenance-of-way rosters. A few still sport their original EBT heralds.
Will the home rails ever see an East Broad Top locomotive run again? It’s a popular question with no definitive answer. I’m an optimist who still sees this glass half full. To this day, the entire facility and collection remains intact and undisturbed. This fact alone is a monumental victory. I am very thankful that the Friends of the East Broad Top actively preserve and restore this link to yesteryear. I’m so grateful that I have had the great pleasure to capture and share these timeless images.
I look forward to when clock hands run backwards – as narrow gauge, smoke billowing trains again traverse the Pennsylvania countryside pulling passenger laden cars. Until then, I will continue my quest in the land that time has ignored with my cameras in hand. It always lures me back . . .
All photos taken between the years of 2011 and 2017
Matthew Malkiewicz – Photographs and text Copyright 2017
Matthew's entire collection of East Broad Top photographs can be viewed on his Lost Tracks of Time website at "East Broad Top Gallery"