19th-Century Steam Engine Will Be Star of East Broad Top's Fall Spectacular
The star of this year's Fall Spectacular at the East Broad Top Railroad will be as unlikely as it is rare: a post-Civil War steam engine that will be run for the first time since 1957. But it will run without going anywhere — it's the stationary steam engine that provided power to almost all the machinery in the railroad's historic machine shops.
"Most people have never seen anything this old run," says Dave Richards, a member of the volunteer Friends of the East Broad Top who helped get the engine back in good operating order this summer. Richards says the year in which the engine was built is unknown, as is the builder, but he believes the engine was originally purchased for one of the iron furnaces after which Rockhill Furnace, the railroad's home town, is named. A plaque mounted on the engine's base says it was installed in the railroad's then-new shops in 1882. The name of A. W. Sims, then the railroad's superintendent, also appears on the plaque.
Richards says the engine may even be older than the railroad, which was built from 1872 to 1874. It's "the simplest, most inefficient" type of steam engine, he says, with a fixed-cutoff design that much of the time would have used more steam than necessary. The engine's single cylinder turned an eight-foot flywheel to which a six-foot pulley is attached. A belt from that pulley looped up to the ceiling, and from there drove a system of overhead shafts, pulleys, and belts that reached almost every machine in the main shops building, the adjoining car shop, the blacksmith's shop, and the foundry.
Among the machines that the stationary engine powered are lathes, planers, drill presses, a wheel press, and a shear/hole punch—all of them still in place. Partly because the shops complex is so well preserved, the railroad was made a National Historic Landmark in 1964, and the shops were documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.
Although only a few of the machines would have been in use at any one time, Richards says the stationary engine was more than powerful enough to handle the shop's needs, even as the complex was expanded in the early 1900s. "It's set up for maximum power," he says. "My theory is that you could move heaven and earth with this engine."
After 1911 the engine drew steam from two massive, brick-walled Babcock & Wilcox boilers whose 90-foot-high stacks still tower over the railroad's yards. During the Fall Spectacular, however, the engine will operate on compressed air, since the boilers are inoperable.
The engine was uncovered this summer by members of a Friends of the East Broad Top team known as the Boiler House Rats. The team replaced a roof beam that had failed during the 1980s and then had to be supported by a lattice of wood cribbing built up over the engine. The cribbing not only hid the engine, but also locked it in place. The Rats—their t-shirts say "Anything Less Than a 4x4 Is Just Trim"—jacked up the entire roof to replace the beam so that the cribbing could come down. They are still working on a number of related projects, including rebuilding parts of the machine-shop roof and stabilizing the bases of the stacks.
Once the engine had been uncovered, the elegant device that regulated its speed—called a fly-ball governor—was retrieved from storage and put back where it belongs. Richards contrived a mechanical lubricator to oil the engine in the absence of the steam necessary to operate the original lubrication system.
The engine will be operated for the first time at 11 a.m. on Friday, October 9, and will also be demonstrated during shop tours Saturday and Sunday. The railroad's drill press and its wheel lathe will also be demonstrated.
The Friends of the East Broad Top is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the 33-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad. In addition to numerous projects in Rockhill Furnace, it owns the railroad's station in Robertsdale, Pa., which it operates as a museum.
Richards travels to the railroad from Binghamton, N.Y., every month for the volunteers' weekend-long work sessions. Other regular members of the Boiler House Rats are Jim Bacon, from Williamsfield, Ohio; Tom Diehl, from Stroudsburg, Pa,; Brad Esposito, from Punxsutawney, Pa.; John Morgan, from Ontario, Canada; Jim Sucke, from Chambersburg, Pa.; and Dick Ullery, from Sewickley, Pa.