By Jacy Lee
In his song “The City of New Orleans,” Arlo Guthrie bemoans, “This train has the disappearing railroad blues.” And he was right.
Although freight trains are still quite prevalent, non-commuter passenger travel on the rails is a trickle of what it once was. On a recent drive across America, I saw numerous freight trains, some with hundreds of cars, but only one passenger train, with a half dozen or so cars. It’s true, the golden age of rail travel is dead, but the age of railroad collectibles is very much alive.
There is a multitude of railroad-related items in the antiques and collectibles world. I’ll cover some of the more common ones here. But, trust me, there are so many. Almost anything that would be in a house was also in a train. There were also many items that were on the outside of trains.
Probably the most common outdoor railroad collectible is the lantern. Kerosene lanterns were used by brakemen, mechanics, detectives, and, most notably, inspectors. The typical lantern is about 10 inches tall, with a metal bail above that. The metal base and cap sandwich a glass globe, usually clear or red. To differentiate railroad lanterns from common barn lanterns of the same make, railroad lanterns are embossed with the company initials. A lantern manufacturer such as Adlake would have made both barn and rail lanterns, but the rail lanterns would be initialed, in the metal, S.P. (Southern Pacific), U.P.R.R. (Union Pacific), N.Y.C. (New York Central), or hundreds of other brands. The really good lanterns would also be marked on the glass globe itself.
Lanterns are nice and easy to handle and display. Other exterior railroad collectibles are not quite as amiable. The “Railroad Crossing” signs of 100 or so years ago were solid cast iron. Most collectors today can’t even safely mount them on their walls.
The porcelain coated signs that hung on cars or station walls are a little easier to display.
Another tough piece to handle is the track switches. Switching was done by iron, pump-like handles, which were bolted near the track junctions. These were 6 or 7 feet high and made to withstand a … er … a train. These are best moved with the help of a hand truck.
The interiors of passenger cars were the lap of luxury. Many people marveled at the amenities provided, which often eclipsed their own homes. Dining cars provided porcelain dinnerware and silver flatware to match. Again, almost all of these items were stamped or marked, denoting the rail company. At a house auction in Springfield, Missouri, I saw a cake plate, mildly decorated, but marked Frisco, bring two thousand dollars. More common plates or forks might be valued from five to fifty dollars.
Another luxurious marvel provided by some railroads was their hotels. S.F.R.R. (Santa Fe, now A.T.S.F.) had a chain of hotels spread across America for the travelers after a long day on the rails. Their Harvey Girls were so renowned for hospitality that they inspired a movie. Winslow, Arizona, was home to the famous La Posada Hotel, a gem of the S.F. line. This became a haunt to many famous stars on their way to L. A.
Other notable collectibles were inside the sleeper and daytime cars. Luggage racks, attached to the top of walls, are popular and functional today. They were brass or iron, ribbed on the bottom, with fancy sides. Think of the overhead luggage compartment in airplanes, only open, airy, and fancy. Another nice amenity provided for travelers was blankets. The Pullman blanket, from Pullman sleeper cars, is a comfy collectible from that era. Don’t forget, we were human, so spittoons, ashtrays, corner sinks, and even toilet bowls had their function back then, not to mention their market today.
The list of R.R. collectibles goes on. Some lines had mascots, like Chessie, from C. & O. (Chesapeake and Ohio). Chessie was a proud papa cat whose likeness appeared on Christmas posters, ashtrays, decks of cards, and more.
Uniforms, caps, locks, tools, maps, bills, timetables, photos, engine specs, headlights, and more round out railroad mania. When it comes to collecting railroad items, we should be all aboard.
Longtime Prescott resident Jacy Lee has been in the auction business for 37 years and is directly responsible for a fraction of a million pounds of minimally processed recycling each year.