ABT Photo

A young project coordinator Ron Morgan, third from the left, front row, appears with a group of local, regional and state officials in front of Robertsdale’s No. 1 coal mine tipple in 1966. The group was pushing for several heritage preservation activities in the Robertsdale/Wood area. The project was sponsored by the Robertsdale Lions Club.

As plans continue for the reopening of the East Broad Top Railroad by the newly created EBT Foundation Inc., hopes for the possible long-term extension of the tourist line to the Broad Top has gained movement.

It is great news for Broad Toppers and music to this columnist’s ears as many of us push for the inclusion of the Robertsdale/Wood area in the multi-phase restoration project. EBT officials have cautioned that they do not want to make promises the foundation cannot keep but will study all aspects of the former coal-hauling railroad’s future.

A master plan is being created to guide the EBT’s expectations for the years ahead. It is my hope that the Broad Top end of the railroad will be marked for eventual activities. Hopefully, that plan will someday include the return of Ole Easty to the mountain.

Already, the Friends of the East Broad Top (FEBT) have kicked into high gear plans for the opening of the renovated former Robertsdale Post Office as an FEBT Museum while additional plans are being prepared for the restoration of the EBT Depot in Robertsdale.

The FEBT volunteers have also been busy clearing the EBT right of way from the FEBT Museum to the southern end of Robertsdale with plans to operate “speeders” on the right of way to the old Robertsdale No. 5 “Slope Mine” area, situated just across Trough Creek from the columnist’s home.

Late last year, the EBT Foundation, in cooperation with the FEBT, transported several original EBT coal hoppers to Robertsdale where they were placed on restored narrow gauge trackage, along side Robertsdale legendary EBT Depot.

Other options being examined include the possible development of the old Ruth George Playground in Robertsdale as an interpretive park focusing on not only the railroad, but the coal mining history of the EBT Coal Field. More details as they are announced.

The playground is adjacent to the remains of the old No. 1 and 5 deep mines as well as the nearby “company square” which already is the home of the FEBT museum complex; and just a short distance away, the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum.

When the EBT shut down in 2012, the Coal Miners Museum suffered both financially and otherwise as visitation dwindled. As in the past, I strongly believe that if you are to tell the ENTIRE story of the railroad is MUST include Robertsdale and Wood. This is one of the goals of the EBT Foundation in cooperation with the FEBT and the Coal Miners Museum.

I take pride in telling folks who are new to the EBT restoration that I am not just a fan of the railroad. I witnessed Ole Easty “in action” during the early 1950s, leading up to its final run to Robertsdale and Wood on March 31, 1956. In today’s column, let me briefly reminisce.

My connections with the EBT and King Coal revolves around my grandfather, the late John Watkin who worked in the Rockhill Coal Co. deep mines during the 1930s and early 1940s. He was injured in a mine accident and had to take up farming following the mishap. While farming in upper Coles Valley (also referred to my some as Groundhog Valley) he served as a guard at the nearby EBT tunnels during World War II.

In addition to being a “Coal Miners’ Grandson,” the columnist and many of his childhood friends who lived long Robertsdale’s South Main Street were witness to the final days of the EBT’s common carrier history.

During the years leading up to the EBT’s demise in early spring of 1956 Robertsdale’s “South Main Street Gang” walked to school every morning and often had to wait on the southern side of the railroad tracks in downtown Robertsdale while the EBT coal hoppers were weighed in preparation for their trek to Rockhill and Mount Union.

Watching and listening to the sounds of the EBT was something to behold for this young Robertsdale lad who had little knowledge of the EBT’s history at the time. As a youngster I also enjoyed visiting the nearby Robertsdale Company Store, having my hair cut by Ernest Ross in his barbershop in the Robertsdale Hotel.

Growing up in Robertsdale during the final days of King Coal and the narrow-gauge railroad produced wonderful memories which I will take to my grave.

And there are other fond memories of a Robertsdale lad which remain fresh in my mind: summer days at the Ruth George Playground, watching the EBT pass by the company store at Christmas time from the second floor toy department, enjoying potato chips, soda and a milkshake inside Jess Morgan’s “Shop,” Friday and Saturday night double features at the nearby Reality Theatre, attending grade school “on the hill” overlooking the coal company town (also a great place to view the EBT and the towering pine trees and hilltop behind the school), performing in the Robertsdale High School “Tiger” Band during the late 1950s, swimming in Great Trough Creek (also referred to as the “Sulfur Creek” by some) and attending Sunday School at the old Robertsdale Church of God and the United Methodist Church (today, the home of the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum).

I could go on, but there is not enough space to record those superb memories of growing up in Robertsdale. But you get the picture.

After the EBT made its last trip to the mountain the South Main Street Gang enjoyed Saturdays romping on what I consider to be one of the largest playgrounds a young kid could envision: the entire Slope No. 5 Mine and No. 1 Mine, walking the tracks to Wood, Alvin and Cooks and so many other activities associated with the EBT of the early 1950s.

During the mid 1960s, after the EBT opened between Rockhill and Shirleysburg as a tourist operation I had the honor of working on weekends at the EBT providing a historical narrative of the railroad on the excursion trips. It was also an honor to join Robertsdale Lions Club officials in the introduction of “Operation Recovery,” in 1965, a multi-phase initiative which called for, among other things, the reopening of the EBT to Robertsdale and the development of a tourist coal mine at Slope No. 5 and a coal miners museum.

In 1966 I entered the U.S. Army and eventually a tour of duty in Vietnam. When I returned in 1970 and began a full-time career in the newspaper reporting business with The Daily News, the original Robertsdale proposal had fallen on hard times.

Since 1970 many proposals have come down the pike regarding the future of the EBT, some of them promising, others not so much. The newest restoration project has considerable merit with all the participants bringing considerable talents to the planning table.

And so, it is full steam ahead for Ole Easty as historic preservationists at Robertsdale continue their activities at the Coal Miners Museum while members of the FEBT push ahead with the opening this year of its museum complex in downtown Robertsdale.

Will we ever hear the railroad’s whistle again in Robertsdale? Only time will tell. I have high hopes, so let us all “Stop, Look and Listen!” Straight ahead my fellow EBT supporters.

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