Workin’ On The Railroad


During the first half of this century, when the steam locomotives of the East Broad Top railroad were chugging through the Aughwick Valley, the south-western Pennsylvania town of Mount Union was a nationally recognized center of industry. The train ran 30 miles from Robertsdale north to Mount Union, hauling the semibituminous coal mined from Broad Top mountain, and ganister, the local quartzite that made the region famous for its silica bricks. The East Broad Top connected the valley to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which carried those bricks to build the great steel furnaces of Pittsburgh.

Then ceramic brick came along, better than silica, and the local industry dried up. The East Broad Top quit running in 1956, and the valley has been pretty quiet since.

Now the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has pledged $30 million, stipulating matching funds, to reopen the historic rail line. "This is the only extant narrow-gauge railroad east of the Mississippi," says Dan Nadenicek, Penn State assistant professor of landscape architecture. Narrow-gauge lines, with tracks three feet apart instead of the standard four-and-a-half feet, were cheaper and offered better maneuverability on spur routes built for short-distance hauling from mines and quarries, Nadenicek explains. A revitalized East Broad Top, by some estimates, could draw 100,000 people a year to the economically depressed region.

What would this influx mean for Mount Union and the five other communities that lie within the lovely rural landscape the East Broad Top traverses? When Allan Comp, heritage resources manager for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission, looked at the state's proposal, he saw potential impacts and opportunities beyond the rail bed. In 1995, Comp received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for a study titled, appropriately, "More Than a Train Ride." When he approached Eliza Pennypacker, head of Penn State's landscape architecture department, to ask whether students would like to help with the study, Pennypacker jumped at the chance.

"Allan rightly recognized that there's more than a train here – there's a whole corridor," she says, "a landscape that can't be divorced from the train ride.

"Every site has a past," Pennypacker adds. "Understanding the history of a landscape is just as important to responsible design as understanding the hydrology, soils, geology – all the things landscape designers typically are concerned with."

That point is stressed in the upper-level undergraduate course in landscape history she developed with Nadenicek. With Comp's invitation, the East Broad Top corridor became a real-world classroom for Pennypacker's and Nadenicek's students.

For the first phase of the class, in the fall of 1995, the students formed small groups, each group responsible for one of the five communities along the route. They talked with local residents, perused maps and records, photographed buildings and other landmarks, and eventually compiled a working history of each place. "What we found," Pennypacker says, "is that these towns sit like jewels along the necklace of the East Broad Top – each distinct, each with its own fascinating story to tell. In their variety, they are fine examples of the many different types of towns that have shaped America."

In addition to Mount Union, the brickmaking capital, there were Shirleysburg, which had once been a stage-coach stop and colonial fort; Orbisonia/Rockhill, site of iron furnaces; Saltillo/Three Springs, once touted for its curative mineral springs; and the company coal town of Robertsdale.

In the second phase of the project, students incorporated these individual histories into their consideration of the East Broad Top revitalization plan. "We asked each student to articulate an idea about how that town should relate to, or support, a potential restored railroad," Pennypacker says.

The suggestions were varied. In the case of Mount Union, for example, one student envisioned turning the old train yard, with its still-existing coal trestle and engine house, into an interpretive center. Another laid out the important stops on a walking tour of the historic downtown: the old restaurants, hotels, and architecturally significant homes. A third proposed restoring the old brickworks, its huge ovens now turned into information booths.

At course's end, the students presented their suggestions to a small group of interested citizens in a meeting held at Huntingdon, the local county seat. Then the class reports were gathered into a book, Cultural Landscapes of the East Broad Top Railroad, which took first prize in an annual student competition sponsored by the National American Society of Landscape Architects.

"It has been a great experience for the students," Pennypacker says. "And even if the train doesn't come through, we have provided these communities with a large number of ideas."

Eliza Pennypacker, Ph.D., is professor and head of the department of landscape architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture, 210 Engineering Unit D,University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9511; Daniel J. Nadenicek, Ph.D., is assistant professor of landscape architecture, 218 Engineering Unit D, 863-2373; Allan Comp, Ph.D., is adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture and heritage resources manager of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission.The project reported above was part of a larger project, More Than a Train Ride, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Last Updated May 01, 1997