For more than 180 years, railroads have been a part of our lives. The railroad has been equal parts responsible for the growth of nations as well as the gist for myth, legend and song.
Railroads are also a wonderful area for collecting, offering many specialties. We will concentrate on full-size operations for the scope of this article. One can approach vintage railroad collectibles on many levels, but the first decisions need to be about the scope – collect things from one railroad, or collect things of one type from many railroads.
The first scope would be to select “your” railroad to collect. It could be the line that served the area where you grew up, the line that serves or served the area where you now live or a railroad on which a parent or grandparent worked. For me, that choice was the Pennsylvania Railroad, as my grandparents and several other relatives worked at Sunnyside Yards in Queens, N.Y., or in New York-Washington passenger service as train crew members.
With the railroad line selected, one then has to choose what to collect. Common items such as public timetables, tickets and employee passes can be had with a limited budget.
A bit more money allows expanding a collection to include employee timetables and publications, annual reports, stationery, stocks and bonds, lanterns, switch locks, keys, uniforms, buttons and badges, blueprints and calendars or dining car service items. At an even higher price range, station signs, locomotive bells, whistles and builder’s plates can be had.
If your collecting preference leans to items, then nice collections can be made from acquiring a number of similar items. Dining car items such as silver service knives, forks, spoons or coffee pots, or china dinner or dessert plates, cups and saucers (which come in many patterns) can make an extensive collection and consume many hours in researching and hunting for items.
Many of these specialties have good reference books and a collector should always do the research before spending hard-earned money on a collection by buying a reference and learning the field; a few hours spent in research is well worth the money saved by avoiding reproductions (and the disappointment of being fooled).
Photographs – either contemporary publicity photos or those taken by rail fans – always make a nice addition to a collection if they show the collected items when they were in revenue use.
Best of all, enjoy your collection in your hobby room, as railroad items make nice display items, and often lead to good stories. Visit a museum, where one can appreciate the full-size equipment many of us do not have the room for, and the display items preserved by the collectors of the past.
George Cuhaj has been active in the scouting program for more than 35 years, collecting items since 1976 when he earned the Eagle Scout award. He was awarded the Silver Beaver award in 1993 and named a James E. West Fellow in 1998. He has written about Boy Scout of America collectibles.
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