F.E.B.T. "Early Bird Weekend"
Draws Members from Near and Far –
Getting steamed up for '97
By Vagel Keller
photos by Deane Mellander
Originally published in The Timber Transfer, Vol 13, No 4, Spring 1997
The FEBT's Early Bird Exploration Weekend, April 16-17, 1997 could perhaps best be described by adapting an old adage: "the early bird gets wet." But constant drizzle punctuated by heavy showers failed to dampen the adventurous spirits of the 20 or so folks who met at FEBT's interim museum in the former EBT Robertsdale Depot on Saturday afternoon. Although the group was slightly smaller on Sunday, the weather cleared long enough that we were able to extend our planned exploration into the mid-afternoon. In addition to visiting several seldom seen sites on dormant or abandoned parts of the EBT system, $150 were raised for FEBT restoration projects and another $100 were donated to the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Historical Society, which hosted us on Saturday evening.
The weekend event was a success for another reason. Of the 20 or so FEBT members who came out, at least 10 were new initiates to exploring the railroad's seldom seen dormant parts. It's always good when FEBT members are introduced to the joys of exploring the treasure that is the East Broad Top. For so many years, only a few "insiders" have penetrated beyond the five mile tourist line between Rockhill/Orbisonia and Colgate Grove. This rainy, blustery April weekend saw several new faces added to the gallery of true EBT explorers.
We met at the Robertsdale Depot at noon Saturday and car-pooled on a circuit of the EBT coal branches that took us to Cooks, Jacobs, Coles Curve, and Joller. The temperature was in the mid to high 40's, so the cold wasn't too much of a factor. None of us had ever been to Jacobs, so visiting the sites of the mine tipple and the post office was the high point for me. The foundations of the Post Office structure, between the branch and the spur to the tipple, survive. Unfortunately, the upgrade section, south of the grade crossing, is now a private drive with a gate, which precluded our walking the grade. There has been significant construction of vacation homes along Jacobs Road in recent years.
Coles Tank still stands, but, after years of relative obscurity and structural integrity, it begun to succumb to man and nature. Sometime in the past year someone cut a path from the grade crossing back to the tank and backed a small truck along the tracks to the tank house. They then knocked out the north window in the small pump house and the wall beneath it and removed what hardware remained. Also, the main beam on the front of the tank house proper has failed at the point directly above the center support column, which has settled. Some of the sheet metal roofing has come loose and is peeled back. The tank's condition has been reported to the EBT management.
Before driving down to Orbisonia for a hot supper, we explored the entire Joller site, including both tipple sites, the town site, and the ruins of the mule barn. Saturday evening, the group met at Robertsdale's Reality Theater in conjunction with the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Historical Society. Ron Morgan, President of the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Historical Society, put on a very good slide show on the company stores of the Broad Top Region that focused on the demolition of the Robertsdale structure. He then showed a color film on mine safety that gave us a glimpse at what it was like to work under ground. That was followed by my slide tour of the EBT from Wood to Mt. Union and SGRR. We were blessed to have a retired miner in the audience at the Reality Theater who worked in the Joller mine and also in Rockhill No. 9. He answered questions, rendered anecdotes, and settled an argument about Joller when he recalled that both seams were worked until the end. The upper seam was up to 8 feet high while the lower was only about 3 feet high, he added. A rather portly gentleman, he wryly opined that he couldn't work the lower seam today.
Sunday morning dawned partly cloudy and breezy. The temperature rose to the mid-50's -- a nice change for those who stayed for day two. We met in Rockhill and walked the furnace area. We followed that with a drive up the main to Mt. Union, with stops in Shirleysburg, Pumping Station, and Aughwick Mills. Then, we traced the grade of the Shade Gap RR to the very end of the South Penn Extension. The Concrete Arch, between Blacklog and Cedar Rock still resists the forces of nature, but the downstream bank was heavily eroded last year, causing a number of large hemlocks to fall into the stream, ruining the clear camera shot of the arch. It is not possible to get a good image now, unless one has waders.
At the Shade Gap station site, I showed everyone the ONLY remaining tie on the SGRR (at least the only _known_ remaining tie). Think we should name it Squanto, last of the Mohicans. Everyone saw the footings for the tank and there was a new twist: the land adjacent to the ROW has changed hands and the new owners have cleared all of the overgrowth from around the SGRR Section House at Shade Gap, which has remarkably survived all these years to be the last remaining structure on the Shade Gap Branch. We were able to get shots from all angles. As is usual when exploring on _unposted_ private property in lower Huntingdon County, it wasn't long before the owner showed up to ask, "Can I help you?" We learned from him that the property records list this structure as the "toll house"... a probable misspelling of Tool House.
We ended the tour at the base of the cut and fill that ends at the trestle site leading to the site of the EBT/SGRR interchange yard graded during the South Penn RR construction in the 1880s. That site is now occupied by a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission maintenance facility. Thanks to all who came and supported this new service to FEBT members. I had as much (if not more) fun as them. To those who missed it: sorry you couldn't make it. We will do this again next year.