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Pennsylvania is a state filled with great railroad history, from the first steam locomotive to operate in America, to the Horseshoe Curve and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today, many excursion railroads and railroad museums continue to maintain that tradition throughout the state.
One of the most fascinating excursion railroads in Pennsylvania is the East Broad Top Railroad, which leaves from a station in Rockhill, a small borough in Huntingdon County. It is directly next door to the popular Rockhill Trolley Museum, which means you can easily do both in a single visit (Combo tickets are available to save a few dollars).
After being closed for 10 years, the East Broad Top Railroad is once again taking visitors through this beautiful part of Pennsylvania and uses almost exclusively steam engines on their excursions, which is always a ton of fun to both see and experience.
It is also unique because, unlike most other excursion railroads, the East Broad Top is a complete historic railroad and, with the exception of modern train cars used for its excursions, nearly everything you see on the site is original to the railroad.
This is also one of the few narrow-gauge railroads that is still operating in the country.
The original East Broad Top Railroad was chartered in 1856, but due to financial issues and the Civil War, the process of building the railroad did not start until 1867. Finally, in August 1873, the railroad began operating, first from Mount Union to Orbisonia, and then, in November 1874 to Robertsdale.
The primary function of the East Broad Top was to carry coal from the mines in the Broad Top Mountain Plateau to the Pennsylvania Railroad line in Mount Union. The railroad also carried passengers and mail, as well as providing a commuting line for coal miners.
The coal in Broad Top Mountain was known for burning especially clean, which made it a popular choice for the fire brick plants in Mount Union and to burn in ships during World War II.
The East Broad Top Railroad was (and still is) a narrow-gauge railroad, which allowed it to take tighter corners while traveling up the mountainside to the coal mines and use less material in the construction of the tracks. It was the only narrow-gauge railroad in the country to use all-steel railcars.
In the early 1900s, the East Broad Top underwent a major modernization effort, bringing in new steam engines and railcars, as well as upgrading its machine shop to help build and maintain its equipment. Much of what can be seen today was part of that revitalization.
The East Broad Top Railroad would remain an operating railroad until 1956. When the coal mines were forced to close due to demand and costs, the railroad also closed.
After the doors were shut, the railroad was sold to Kovalchick Salvage Corporation, who also bought the Kinzua Bridge, in 1959. Nick Kovalchick, the company’s president, opted not to scrap the railroad immediately.
In 1960, Rockhill and Orbisonia were celebrating their bicentennial and asked Kovalchick to put out a train for display. However, he decided to go above and beyond and opted to run the first excursion trips on the East Broad Top Railroad in August of 1960.
Beginning the next summer, the East Broad Top Railroad would take visitors on excursions along the railroad’s old route. Excursions on the railroad ran every year until December 2011 when operations shut down.
Fortunately, a dedicated group of volunteers, the Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad, banded together and maintained the equipment and structures as best as they could with the hope that the railroad would once again come back to life.
And come back to life it did!
In 2021, the East Broad Top Railroad ran its first excursions in nearly ten years, and, in February 2023, they were able to restart using steam engines for nearly all of their train rides.
I had a chance to visit the East Broad Top Railroad in 2018 while it was still closed to the public, and was excited when I had a chance to revisit in the summer of 2023 to experience the railroad’s resurgence and ride one of their regular excursion trains.
Excursion rides start their one-hour journey from the historic train station in Rockhill and head north about 3.5 miles to the Colgate Grove Picnic Area near Shirleysburg. The train then does a three-point turn, with the train actually turning around on the tracks.
If you are on one of the first few train rides of the day, you have the option of getting off here and taking a later train back.
Most excursion trains I’ve ridden in PA either switch the engine to the opposite end or just get pushed back, which means that, with the railcars facing the same way on both journeys, you’ll be potentially riding backward on one part of the journey and you’ll see the same scenery.
Fortunately, with the train physically doing a u-turn, it doesn’t matter which side of the train you sit on as you’ll get to see both sides of the track on your trip.
The East Broad Top starts its journey by traveling north along Route 522. While the train never strays too far from the road, this first portion of the trip is probably the least scenic since it’s not overly different from what you’d see driving down the road.
And while there aren’t any specific scenic highlights along the route, the bucolic scenery next to the train is quite enjoyable to look at.
Probably the most interesting part of the journey is actually the very last bit of the trip. This is when the train passes the train station and goes into the historic rail yard for a few minutes as it turns around once again.
The historic buildings in this space are quite interesting to see and might whet your appetite to see more. If they do, there are regular Immersive Guided Tours that take you into the railroad’s historic buildings.
Having been able to access these buildings several years ago, I was amazed at the incredible pieces of machinery and equipment that are present in these spaces, including several more steam-powered engines.
If you love historic machinery, you won’t want to miss this tour.
When riding the East Broad Top Railroad, you have several choices of seating: coach, open-air, and caboose. While I’m sure the coach and caboose are nice options, I definitely loved choosing the open-air car for my journey.
Each train has two open-air cars: one with a roof near the rear of the train and a completely open-air car just behind the engine and coal car.
Riding in the front open-air car is a ton of fun as it really gives you the full experience of riding on a steam engine. That being said, it is likely that, at some point, the wind will blow just right and send ash raining down on you if you are in this car. But, if you can deal with a bit of dirt from that, it’s well worth it.
It’s worth noting that you’ll want to arrive early, as the best seats get quickly taken on all the cars.
Overall, the East Broad Top Railroad is a really fun excursion railroad to visit. While it might lack some of the great scenery that you see on some other railroads in the state (notably the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway), the combination of steam engines, the historic railyard, and the adjacent Rockhill Trolley Museum. make this a fascinating and fun spot to visit.
Note that rains leave three times a day (11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm) Fridays-Sundays from early May through October. There are also excursions on Wednesdays and Thursdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It is recommended that you purchase tickets in advance on their website.
Looking for more things to do nearby? Check out Trough Creek State Park, St. Mary’s Covered Bridge, and the Abandoned PA Turnpike.