Facebook Page
Great Railroad Stations - Orbisonia

RSHS Depot Email List
Home Subscribe to the List Join the RSHS


Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Orbisonia, PA


Deep in the heart of central Pennsylvania is a railfan treasure, the narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad. Headquartered in the depot at Orbisonia, Pennsylvania, the EBT is a relic of a bygone era, but one that is still very much alive as a tourist operation.

Steam’s up on Father’s Day for a ride on the East Broad Top RR, Sunday June 16th, 2002.  Photo by John C. Dahl

The East Broad Top takes its name from the nearby mountain known as Broad Top. Coal in great quantities was discovered in the mountains in the south-central Pennsylvania location. In 1872 the East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company built the narrow gauge line. This makes the EBT one of the oldest, if not the oldest, narrow gauge line in the United States that is still operating. Three foot gauge railroads were quite common in Pennsylvania’s coal fields as well as in the forest lands to the northwest. (An interesting aside is that Western NY also had a large number of narrow gauge operations in the late 19th Century.) Narrow gauge lines were usually cheaper to build and operate, and economy was a big part of the key to successful exploitation of coal and timber properties. This area of the state also had a number of iron furnaces. With fuel nearby, the railroad had a ready customer in the iron makers for its coal. For some eighty years the EBT would haul the online products from the several branches that extended out west and south of the Orbisonia area. The EBT connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s mainline at Mount Union, several miles north of Orbisonia. At one time, it was envisioned that a connection to the never completed South Penn Railroad would anchor the southeast Shade Gap branch. The South Penn was funded by the New York Central in one of the many rail baron wars of the era. Abruptly, it stopped construction in 1885, and the right of way lay dormant until the late 1930’s when the State of Pennsylvania utilized much of it for a pioneer interstate highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Meanwhile the EBT line operated well into the 1950’s, much as it had when it was originally built. It became in effect a museum of the steam age, a delightful anachronism. By 1956 however, the end was in sight, and it was bought for scrap.

Thankfully, the EBT story did not end with a scrapper tearing up the line. It was revived as a tourist operation, and much of the antique equipment remained active on the property. The more scenic branches up to the coal fields no longer saw any trains, but a five mile north-south section remained in operation, forming the backbone of the tourist operations we know today. The railroad is especially unique because of the infrastructure still in existence including a complete, belt-driven shop complex with original machinery, seven steam locomotives, a gas electric "doodlebug" and a stable of quaint wooden passenger cars, and many home built freight cars.

A narrow gauge steam operation is unique in itself, but Orbisonia also is home to the Shape Gap Electric Railroad. This trolley museum operates over a short distance of the former Shade Gap branch right of way of the EBT to a turnaround loop in the woods. Nowhere else can one ride authentic electric trolleys and then transfer to a steam powered passenger train. A narrow gauge private parlor car, the "Orbisonia", which dates back to 1907 was originally the railroad’s business car.

One well loved feature of the EBT in years past were the annual Winter Steam Spectacular meets, usually held over the Presidents Day weekend in February. These events drew large groups of railfans to the picturesque Aughwick Valley. These gatherings often featured near or below zero temperatures, fresh snow, and sunny blue "Kodachrome" skies. Of course, that’s perfect weather for bringing out the drama of a steam locomotive! The EBT also sponsored many Fall trips, when the surrounding mountains are a blaze of colors. Night photo sessions have also kept the little road in railfan hearts and news columns over the years.

The East Broad Top Railroad was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the official Register in 1966. Even in the early years of the NRHS, the EBT was recognized as a unique survivor, and fan trips sponsored by railfans have continued to keep the little road alive. It is to the credit of owners of the EBT and to generations of railfans that the existence of such a unique operation continues to enrich the heritage of Pennsylvania. Plan on a visit to the East Broad Top Railroad when you are in south central Pennsylvania. It is a bit off the beaten path, but you will be glad you experienced this authentic piece of Americana.

All Aboard!


Back to Great Railroad Stations Index


This page was last updated Wednesday, February 25, 2004

©2004 John Dahl - Page created by Jim Dent
RSHS Depot Email List Homepage space graciously provided by

All content contained herein is the sole property of its owner/creator,
and may not be used without express permission of that owner.