Adventures in Huntingdon County

This past weekend I went off in search of some authentic Pennsylvania history with a very good friend.  During my years of research on the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, I learned of a second rail tunnel through Sideling Hill.  Although the Abandoned Turnpike / South Penn RR history is fascinating in its own right, what we sought had nothing to do with either.  And thanks to a recent surge in interest in the Abandoned Turnpike (which I hope I’ve been at least a small part of), fewer Pennsylvanians have probably heard of our destination:  The East Broad Top Railroad.

Remember that with the exception of the Allegheny Mountain & Lehigh Valley tunnels, all of the PA Turnpike tunnels were once railroad tunnels for the never-finished South Penn.  The concrete shell you see today was built sometime between the late 1930s and early 1960s, depending on whether you’re travelling through the newer twinned tubes (mostly eastbound) or the original tunnels (mostly westbound).  All of the original tunnels date back to shortly after the Civil War.  I point this out only because in today’s Interstate-highway- and jet-based world, it’s easy to forget that railroads were once the dominant force in our economy.

East Broad Top RR

The East Broad Top Railroad was founded in 1856, six years before the start of the Civil War.  Due to funding considerations, it wasn’t actually built until the 1870s and did not enter service until 1873.  Over the next few decades, the EBT expanded passenger and freight service throughout the towns of Mt. Union, Orbisonia, Saltillo, and Robertsdale, as well as several nearby boroughs and villages, before crossing into Fulton County and servicing several mines.  Service ended in 1956 — exactly one century after its charter.  Much of the rail remains throughout the easements, as you’ll see in a moment.

Today, the line is used to run a number of tourism- and photography-oriented events and is operated by the East Broad Top Preservation Society.  A non-profit organization, the Friends of the East Broad Top, exists to help preserve and maintain the EBT.  If  you have any interest whatsoever in capturing some unique, truly Pennsylvanian photographic and/or sightseeing opportunities, I highly recommend their Fall Spectacular.  The 2010 Spectacular has unfortunately concluded, but they still have other events remaining this year — and I will be hosting a group trip up for the 2011 run.  Naturally, there are costs involved — but considering the cost of maintaining and operating the line (after all, you can’t exactly swing by Costco to pick up a replacement locomotive), as well as EBT’s relatively close proximity to Harrisburg (about 90 minutes), the price is beyond reasonable.

East Broad Top RRThis past weekend, however, focused on one particular unused segment of the line.  Calling the run west of Orbisonia “abandoned” is technically incorrect.  The line still exists and is still the private property of the EBT.  It is simply out of service and, for the moment, unusable.  The owners generously gave us permission to walk the line as we saw fit, as long as we agreed to hold them harmless from any injury.  Let’s face it — the segments we walked hadn’t seen maintenance in over a half century, and the tunnels are collapsing.

If you’d like to see the line, the absolute best way to do so is to volunteer with the Friends of the East Broad Top.  They need everyone from general laborers to skilled tradespeople.  The EBT is an important chapter in Pennsylvania’s history, and even if you can’t volunteer, their memberships are dirt cheap.

After spending some time navigating a half dozen state highways from Breezewood, we arrived at a conspicuous cutaway flanking either side of PA-994.  After turning around and parking near the game lands at the top of the mountain, we took a short walk down the hill and were shocked to find fully in-tact rails.  Armed with permission from the owners, we set out to walk the easement in search of whatever time would permit us to see.

East Broad Top RRThere were two aspects of the track that I wasn’t expecting.  The first was the curvature of the track.  This by itself wasn’t shocking, but the curve continued through the tunnel.  The second was the elevation of the easement.  Because of the steep slope of the mountain, the track obviously had to be leveled off with heavy-duty mounts of dirt.  And because of the curved approach, it was necessary to build an actual hill into the mountain — complete with a miniature valley between the mountain and the easement.

Sideling Hill Tunnel, East Broad Top RRThe tunnel itself wasn’t very far off the road.  But like all good disused tunnels, it wasn’t obvious until you were within a stone’s throw.  And it was incredible.  To a casual observer, it may appear as just another hole in the mountain.  Perhaps nothing more than a cave.  Yet when you consider how much strata had to be punched through in order to make this happen, and when you consider the era in which this was done, the tunnel becomes truly amazing.

Unfortunately, despite its awesomeness, the tunnel itself is in pretty bad shape.  As this area is laced with anthracite, and given that anthracite will begin to slowly erode after being exposed to oxygen, the tunnel is littered with rubble from multiple collapses.  A giant boulder (formerly part of the ceiling) and tilted timbers provide an unmistakable warning sign that this tunnel is dangerous and unstable.

Sideling Hill Tunnel, East Broad Top RRA spring covers the tracks inside the tunnel with several feet of cold water.  Despite the fact that this is all well below the surface of the top of the mountain, the relatively short length of the tunnel means that temperatures inside do dip below freezing (history confirmed this when a locomotive hit a patch of ice in 1911 and derailed).  With each passing winter, the ice penetrates into every tiny crack and crevice, putting additional strain on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the tunnel.  Given this unending cycle of stress, and given the inherently unstable nature of the surrounding strata, the tunnel should not be entered.  Footsteps alone could be enough to trigger a rockslide, and your rescue would be unlikely.

Needless to say, we didn’t hike through the tunnel.  We returned to the car and drove a few hundred feet down to the crossing on the opposite side of the hill.  Like before, the crossing was obvious if you know what you’re looking for, but completely anonymous to anyone passing by inattentively.  We pulled off, collected our gear, and began walking towards the opposite portal.

East Broad Top RRThe easement grading wasn’t quite as severe as it was on the opposite side of the tunnel, but it was still noteworthy.  Nonetheless, it still presented us with its share of surprises.  Shortly after departing the roadway, we encountered an unmistakable reminder that nature will ultimately reclaim this land.  A decent-sized tree — still alive, no less — had been topped over and had taken the track with it.  This had the effect of lifting about a dozen feet of track several inches off the ground.

East Broad Top RRThe most perplexing feature was the narrowing of the track.  Naturally, the rails on a track must remain an exact distance apart; there is minimal tolerance for variation.  But here, the individual rails were barely more than one foot apart in stretches.  The explanation is surely a simple one — shifting land, tomfoolery by locals, slow-but-steady pressure from growing trees — but neither of us found any evidence to determine the actual cause.  Perhaps a railfan with more experience will find this post and comment on our observation.

As we walked towards the tunnel, we encountered a three-story wooden structure that we initially thought was a building used by the tunnel watchmen (a door on the entrance you’re about to see necessitated manual operation).  Further research revealed that those buildings have long since disappeared, and that this was most likely simply an abandoned house.

Sideling Hill Tunnel, East Broad Top RRThe southern / eastern portal has a concrete face that was installed around 1919, several decades after the tunnel was opened.  This face slightly reduced the length of the tunnel and featured a door used to keep snow and ice out of the tunnel.  Initially manually controlled by watchmen, the system was briefly semi-automated in the late 1940s so that the engineers and brakemen could open and close the door themselves.  By the early 1950s, the doors were returned to manual operation after a few too many incidents involving the door shutting on a caboose.

Sideling Hill Tunnel, East Broad Top RRThe conditions inside the tunnel are generously described as “unknown”.  Although it is possible to walk inside this portal, doing so is not recommended.  The risk of being hit with falling rock is substantial.  Surprisingly, the ties and rail are in good condition, despite being surrounded with running water.  While the ties are rotting away, they are still visible and clearly identifiable.  The entire line is clearly visible up until the first rubble pile, at which point they begin to fade away under the dammed-up reservoir of the spring.

Sideling Hill Tunnel, East Broad Top RRIf the tunnels and rails don’t look bad from the outside, the inside of this particular portal gives a good indication of exactly how much time has passed since the line was last maintained.  Rotting wooden planks are slowly dropping onto the track below, resulting in ever-growing piles of rock throughout the tunnel.  While it’s pretty slick to look at, it won’t be much longer until this tunnel — or at least the wooden structures within — are no more.

As both daylight and my batteries were fading, we had to bail a little ahead of schedule and return to the car.  We will definitely return in the spring.  There’s another tunnel nearby, and the entire length of the East Broad Top is filled with what looks to be incredible scenery and rich history.  I will also be taking a group up for one of their tours in the fall.

As a footnote to this whole adventure, our first stop of the day was a very brief tour of the abandoned turnpike tunnel in Sideling Hill.  As we passed the Route 30 parking area, I counted no less than a dozen cars in the lot and on the shoulder.  And as we went past the Oregon Road parking area, we observed a van full of cyclists unloading their bikes from the trailer.  And when we finally reached Sideling Hill, there was a group of about ten people pausing at the entrance.  These numbers all add up to far, far more visitors to the AT than I have ever seen in any one trip.  In fact, moreso than all the trips combined.  I’m glad to see more people learning about and enjoying the Abandoned Turnpike.  I just hope that common sense prevails among the visitors, and that the site continues to remain largely in-tact and free from aggressive vandalism.