AT Inbox: Stash found in walls floods railroad market

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In response to your question of the week, (see Oct. 6 edition, Living Time Capsules) I did not find the treasures but was very involved after someone else did.

I am a collector of railroad items and have frequent contact with other collectors all over the country. One day, a friend in Alabama called and said he had 1899 timetables for the Wabash and Mobile & Ohio RRs and asked if I was interested. Those were two of my favorite railroads, and I said yes, depending on price and condition. He said they are near mint and offered about $35 each, or $50 for the pair. Knowing their retail value was at least $75 each, I said yes.

A few minutes later he called back and said he also had some from 1900 for the same railroads, how about $35 for the pair. Once again, I couldn’t pass up a bargain.

An hour or so later, a friend in California called and said “Have I got a deal for you on Wabash and M&O timetables, at only $100 for the pair.” I didn’t tell him about my calls from Alabama, but said no thanks. Soon the phone began ringing every half hour or so, calls from collectors all over the country with the same railroad timetables. It got comical after a while. A caller would say, hey this is Joe in Boston, and I’d interrupt and say, “Yeah, you have some Wabash and M&O timetables don’t you?” They all said Alabama was the source.

So I finally called the guy in Alabama back and asked what is going on here; everyone has these. Where are they coming from?

Are you reprinting them or what?

He then ’fessed up.

A house in his town was being torn down by hand to salvage the lumber. Someone noticed railroad “books” in the walls and called my friend, knowing he was a railroad collector. Turns out the house was built around 1900 by a man who was a “travelling agent” for various railroads. They would ship him large quantities of their timetables, and he would place them in racks in hotels and other public places in towns in his area. As he was building his house, he saved all the old obsolete timetables and used them for insulation in the walls of his new house. Having been inside the walls, they were protected from light and water, the two things that badly damage old paper items. A few had minor mouse nibbles, but most were near mint!

My friend in Alabama ended up with dozens, maybe hundreds of these used-to-be-rare items, and was basically unable to get hardly anything for them, as the word got out quickly. He didn’t realize until too late that value comes from rarity, and when dozens or hundreds of rare items show up, they are no longer rare.

Too many of a rare thing showing up at once raises a big red flag; is it a repro, or did someone find a mother lode? If he had been smart enough to parcel them out a few at a time over the months or years, he might have made some good money.

But he got greedy and called everyone the same day. Once again, greed overpowers common sense! ?

Dick Wallin
Rochester, Ill.


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