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Historic East Broad Top Railroad chugs toward financial collapse

Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ROCKHILL FURNACE, Pa. -- An agency chronicling this region's industrial lineage is hunting for money to turn the story of the persevering little East Broad Top Railroad into a history course.

Dave Boya, an apprentice fireman, stands on the coal tender of locomotive14. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

It's a good idea, maybe.

The railroad has 130 years of history. It carried timber, coal and people across 33 miles of mostly rural, sometimes rugged, southern Huntingdon County countryside.

It's an unvarnished antique celebrated by top rail historians. And on weekends, East Broad Top steam locomotives still pull coaches of sightseers five miles up the green Aughwick Valley.

But, by most accounts, it won't be long before the only trace of the railroad will be in history books. The real thing is perilously close to vanishing, observers say.

In an assessment of the East Broad Top, Smithsonian Institution rail expert William Withuhn declared, "Nowhere in North America does such a complete and original historic site exist."

A few years ago, there was optimism that public money would save the transportation heirloom from the ravages of age -- a rescue that the EBT, perennially in the red, couldn't swing itself.

Now, by most accounts, optimism has faded into a death watch.

"It's within a year or two of physical collapse," said Jerry Fisher, whose bid this year to put the railroad in a mix of public and private hands was rebuffed by the EBT's owner. "There's no answer I know of."

Talks between the owner and Fisher's union of public and private buyers broke off in rancor. State funds to buy and start repairing the railroad -- $1 million in allocated state money and an application for another $1 million -- have been pulled off the table.

The EBT, deemed a national historic landmark 38 years ago, is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of most endangered sites. Its meager income can't cover debts -- let alone shore up deteriorating buildings or buy advertising that observers say could bring a threefold increase in its laggard 12,000-person-a-year ridership.

"We're to the point where something has to happen very, very soon to make sure this resource is there for the future," said Jane Sheffield, executive director of the Allegheny Ridge Corp., a nonprofit agency promoting the region's industrial and cultural past.

If age doesn't claim the EBT, the highest bidders might, the railroad's owner warned.

Indiana, Pa., scrap dealer Joe Kovalchick, whose family resurrected the EBT and recycled it from a failed freight carrier into a tourist line, suggests that after 46 years of family stewardship, the railroad could be carved up.

"I'm open to all things -- any disposition, liquidation, sale," Kovalchick said. "As you get older and fight the yearly struggle and lose money, you lose steam and say, 'Why am I doing this?' "

In 1956, Kovalchick's father, Czechoslovakian immigrant Nick Kovalchick, bought the failed EBT, planning to make scrap of its narrow-gauge tracks -- rails 36 inches apart instead of the standard 56 inches.

He couldn't.

"He loved the railroad," Joe Kovalchick said.

"There's no question that the Kovalchick family is responsible for the fact that the railroad continues to exist," said Henry Inman, president of the 900-member Friends of the East Broad Top (www.febt.org), a group of EBT fans.

The railroad's thin income carried one blessing: There was no money to fix up or tear down the old rail shops. Neglect preserved the works just as they were, from belt-driven grinders to wrenches big as a baseball bat.

They all reside in grime-laden shops in a 300-yard-long complex -- from a brick roundhouse to an assembly of rust-red wooden buildings, some with chicken-wire-covered windows, many with a distinct lean.

Train Engineer Tom Holden backs Locomotive 14 out of the roundhouse. The East Broad Top Railroad in Huntingdon County remains mostly the same as it was on the day it ceased full-time operation in 1956. The railroad still operates steam-driven engines on weekends. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

"There are parts of railroads that offer similar insight into the work of railroading and operations of railroads in the past. The thing about the East Broad Top is that it exists in its entirety," Inman said.

Joe Kovalchick won't disclose his railroad's losses. But feeding the EBT enough to keep it going bleeds money from the sale of timber, coal and real estate in an estimated 20,000 acres that Nick Kovalchick bought with the railroad.

"That's money I could put elsewhere," Joe Kovalchick said.

So along came the plan to buy the railroad from the Kovalchick family and fix it up.

Planners wanted $1 million in state transit funds just to keep the place from falling in. Without the aid, Joe Kovalchick wrote in an application, "It is almost a sure bet that EBT will wither and disappear."

But officials complained that Kovalchick balked at strings attached to the money -- requirements that the railroad be donated to a nonprofit corporation, that outside officials have access and that the railroad keep running into the future.

Fisher -- once a railroader, now a federal railroad overseer and, in a private venture, a would-be owner of part of the EBT -- approached Kovalchick with a new offer.

He would have formed his own for-profit group of stockholders, dubbed EBT Acquisition Corp., to pay $2 million for the EBT.

Fisher's group would have taken over the railroad and operated the tourist line.

But the rail shops and pieces of EBT not needed for the tourist line would be sold for about $1 million to the Allegheny Ridge Corp., which would find or form a nonprofit owner to care for the historic properties.

Allegheny Ridge planned to buy the facilities from Fisher's group and fix them up, drawing from a pot of $2 million in PennDOT money and a $500,000 local match. That $500,000 match would be put up by EBT Acquisition.

Kovalchick, in turn, would keep the acreage from which he draws coal and timber.

By Fisher's reckoning, Kovalchick's take would top $2 million because an additional commitment from EBT Acquisition would plow $1 million of its own money into critical repairs immediately and allow Kovalchick to forgo maintenance of his own.

In a letter a few months earlier, Kovalchick acknowledged that saving EBT was beyond his resources and wrote, "Something has to be done outside the family in order to preserve the delicate treasure of railroading history."

When Fisher put his offer on the table, though, Kovalchick all but called it attempted larceny.

"I was insulted by that," Kovalchick said of the offer.

He made no counterproposal, and the talks died.

The Allegheny Ridge Corp. released a summation to political leaders, blaming the breakdown on Kovalchick's "continuing refusal to deal in good faith." Kovalchick charged that he simply was being low-balled.

A 10-year-old appraisal set the value of the rail complex at $9.7 million, he said.

Fisher says the appraisal set the value at a maximum of $7.1 million, an optimistic figure.

"They were trying to steal my railroad from me," Kovalchick charged.

Kovalchick's sense of the EBT's value is overblown, Fisher said.

"There are plenty of people [who] would mortgage their mother for this railroad," he said, "but they couldn't come up with what Joe thinks it's worth."

"Joe has to come to a resolution in his own mind about what he wants to see happen," said Randy Cooley, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission, a promoter of the area's industrial history.

"As long as he owns the property, there's nothing anybody can do about it, and there's nothing anybody should do about it."

In the meantime, the EBT has other concerns to deal with.

The Federal Railroad Administration will offer no particulars but is investigating allegations that include suggestions that an improper braking system was used on at least one run, a problem Kovalchick said was solved.

But he said the FRA also might push for boiler inspections on his six steam locomotives, a job that, given the complexity of dissembling a boiler for inspection, could cost up to $80,000 a locomotive.

For now, the weekend trains continue to pull out from the EBT station in Rockhill Furnace -- a two-story building painted signature cream, green and brown, modest but tidy, like the rest of this 414-population town.

The office manager talks about the cut-price anniversary day coming in August and their fall-foliage train rides in October.

But Fisher talks about what could have been -- an EBT in new hands with more money, a railroad that would have expanded operations from weekends to seven days a week, drawn tour buses and increased ridership threefold.

"It could have become a valuable property," he said.

Now -- historic value aside, judging from a financial standpoint -- if the EBT vanishes, the loss won't be felt.

"The impact would be practically none," he said.

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