Meticulously lined up on shelf upon shelf in a couple of rooms in Chad Harpole’s house are 275 to 300 railroad lanterns.
The brakeman’s or marker lantern colors – which come in five varieties – are attention grabbing. Clear/white, red, yellow, green and cobalt blue. They are all there, shiny to the eye as ever. The pieces are the pride and joy of Harpole’s railroadiana collection that he’s spent the last 27 years building. The lanterns conjure up memories of his childhood.
Growing up in the 1980s, Harpole’s dad owned a small pharmacy, the only one in the quaint central Kentucky town. A state trooper would stop into the store often and gab about his antique train and railroad collection. All that talk about the rail lines piqued Harpole’s interest.
“I never lived in a house with a basement, so I was never able to get into model trains,” said Harpole, who has his collection spread across two rooms in his house and basement.
Instead, at age 12, Harpole started collecting railroadiana – which refers to artifacts of current or former operating railways. Over the years, Harpole went from collecting lanterns and branched off into other areas of the hobby. But he’s always concentrated on purchasing items that have a direct link to his home state, Kentucky.
“I realized early on and got a lot of advice from mentors that I couldn’t own everything, and my wife limited my space,” said Harpole, who lives in Georgetown, Kentucky. “I really just focus on regional railroads and related items. I do lanterns hot and heavy and then I do number plates and steam locomotive headlights and hardware. But the only thing I don’t do really is china and silver – signage and all points in between.”
About seven years ago, Harpole really ramped up his collecting habits. The following year, he joined the Railroadiana Collectors Association, Incorporated (RCAI). He now serves as vice president of the club.
Harpole has a large railroadiana collection, but it pales in comparison to other members in RCAI. Collecting antique railroad items can be quite addicting.
“The good thing about railroad stuff is that anybody that collects railroad stuff has a great collection of stolen items,” Harpole joked. “It all walked off the railroad at some point.”
Harpole, 39, is one of the youngest – if not the youngest – members in the organization. He doesn’t mind, though, because he loves being a part of the interactive group.
RCAI consists of roughly 500 members from throughout the world. The size of the organization is advantageous, allowing members to really get to know one another and share stories about their collections.
“It’s not as if everyone communicates with everyone else, but usually you know the people,” said Roger Hoffmann, who has been president of the RCAI for the past three years. “You have more of a feeling of being a part of something than you would in a larger organization.”
RCAI is such a small organization in large part because collecting railroadiana is an extremely niche hobby.
“The majority of the people, let’s say in our neighborhood or something like that, when we mention railroadiana, they don’t even recognize it other than a coal dumper or something like that is on the rails anymore,” Hoffmann said.
It is a hobby that’s not for everyone, but it’s a growing hobby, noted Hoffmann.
“I think because it’s a piece of history,” he said. “I don’t think people realize what a difference in America’s history the railroads have meant, both in wealth – in opening up things where one of the things that you can find are some brochures from the railroads. They advertise states and they say, ‘Come to Nebraska and buy land. It’s relatively inexpensive.’ And the brochure actually goes into photos of some of the land that’s available. This is a major part of the settlement of the United States are the railroads, going from the East Coast out into the West Coast.”
Whereas Harpole is more of a modern-day collector in terms of going after lanterns and number plates, Hoffmann is more of an old-school collector, focusing on china and ephemera.
Hoffmann and his wife, Diane, who is also a railroadiana collector and RCAI regional board member, realized their love of riding the rails in the early 1980s. They started by purchasing damaged china used on the railcars that generally have the railroad company’s name on them. Over time, their tastes shifted to paper products, namely calendars. These items always featured fabulous art, said Roger Hoffmann.
The Hoffmanns, who live in Tempe, Arizona, have always had a fun time collecting railroadiana.
“It’s like anything – it’s the hunt, it’s the history,” said Roger Hoffmann, who is 76. “It’s reading about how things came about and how it impacted our entire country. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do (in the RCAI) is trying to maintain that history.”
What is there to collect?
One of the biggest draws to collecting railroadiana is how many directions a collector can go. A person can collect lanterns, station signs, train whistles, locomotive nameplates and builder nameplates, china, paper, headlights, hardware, sleeping car linens, and specific railroad company items. The possibilities are almost endless.
“Some people want to specialize, other people want to be as broad as they possibly can,” Hoffmann said. “One of the things that collectors, and I think in general, may decide to do is they want some closure at some point. And that’s very hard to do unless you do specialize where you can say you now have a complete collection of the dinnerware set that was available on a certain train. … Or you may specialize in a certain rail line, a rail company and try to get more into the brochures that were available. Somehow or another, usually, the people will decide what their limits are or where their borders are.”
“Many of the collectors are more interested in the hardware: the bells, the whistles, from the train,” Hoffmann said. “There are plates that indicate the engine number and things like that. That’s one of the things that creates the interest areas a lot of times is the history of those things.”
Another extremely popular area folks like to collect are locks and keys. It’s the gorgeous and artistic look that make the items attractive. Harpole calls locks a great entry point into the hobby.
“The value of a lock increases significantly when you have a key that fits that lock,” Hoffmann said. “The lock itself would have one value and the key to open that lock would be significantly more valuable.”
Said Harpole: “Part of it is finding the lock and then taking four or five years to find the key that opens it. That’s the quest and the chase. Just like any antique collectible, that’s part of the fun in the hobby.”
What Harpole specializes in, lanterns, are the most common items for members of RCAI.
The lanterns have always had appeal. Back in the day, every railroad worker
received his own lantern. It was an essential item for those working in the business.
“They were also signaling devices before modern-day signals such as stoplights,” Harpole said. “Railroads have those all over, but before then you had different colored globes within the lanterns that were signaling devices and represented a safety procedure on the railroad.”
Lanterns come in five colors: white/clear, act as a flashlight; red, used for the end of a train or to order a stop; yellow, means proceed with caution; green, means go; and cobalt blue, which are rarest and hardest to find.
“The railroads marked the lantern frames, so the medal pin part, those were marked with particular railroads and in most cases, they marked the globes as well,” Harpole said. “Obviously, through 125-150 years having a globe is a true survivor. Having one in good condition that’s not cracked or scratched or anything, that’s the prize.”
Cobalt blue lanterns can range in price anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000, Harpole said. However, lanterns – generally the clear/white variety are the least expensive – can be affordable for any collector.
“You can pick railroad marked lanterns up for $25 at antique shows or flea markets or wherever,” Harpole said. “I think lanterns are the entry point, that’s what got me into it. Then it just snowballs into different areas.
“I particularly like locomotive number plates – kind of like a license plate for an engine. I like being able to look at number 1979, and then have a photo of that engine and say, ‘Hey, there’s the plate on that engine. That’s the plate right here in front of us.’”
Harpole said collecting china and silver are not that big anymore; hardware and signs have become popular by the younger generation in the hobby.
“Just like petroliana, signs are getting to be really, really hot, because everybody wants to decorate their man cave or their garage with signs,” Harpole said. “Railroads had signs for everything – just like a Sinclair (gas) station, it’s the same way with railroads. They had signs on everything marked: ‘No trespassing.’ ‘No entry on bridge’ with the railroad name. That really appeals to people.”
There are plenty of easy-to-find railroadiana items, but, of course, there are always those pieces that are rare and garner big bucks.
Colorado Narrow Gauge items fetch consistently high figures, as do pieces from Western Railroad. According to Harpole, generally items from east of Mississippi don’t bring as much money as items from the far west, such as in Colorado and Utah.
“Let’s say a Santa Fe cobalt globe, 20 years ago, one of them brought $25,000 in an auction,” Harpole said. “If you sold it today, it could probably catch $40,000 to $50,000. But part of that is the area of the country. A dollar in California is a lot different than a dollar in central Kentucky. So, you have some collectors out there, spending $50,000 on a globe and don’t even bat an eye.”
Attracting a younger crowd
With the median age of members in the RCAI in their 60s, the organization is trying to attract younger enthusiasts.
It’s important to the hobby to get fresh blood involved in railroadiana. The future of the hobby could be hanging in the balance without new, younger faces.
“When I first joined, I was probably by far the youngest member of the group, and when I would go to train shows, pre-COVID, I’d look around and be the youngest person there,” Harpole said. “That’s really one of the reasons I wanted to get involved with the association to try to make sure it survives. I’ve made a major investment in my collection and if there’s nobody interested in it to buy it from me or my wife and something happens to me, God forbid, we’ve got to groom a younger generation that’s interested in this.”
RCAI found out younger people are interested in railroadiana, but they didn’t have a way to connect. Up until a couple years ago, the organization didn’t have any social media presence. Now, it is big into getting its message out on Facebook (www.facebook.com/RailroadCollectors). The RCAI has also hit advertising hard, aiming toward trade and train magazines. That has brought in a new audience.
RCAI will hit its 50-year anniversary in 2021 and is looking to make a splash. It will be sending out four special issues of its magazine, The Railroadiana Express. The group is also easing into Zoom conferences and seminars to educate its members as well as the general public.
“We want to make sure we’re educating the younger crowd that you can be into signs and be a part of our association even though you’re not interested in china,” Harpole said. “And, it doesn’t take a $5,000 sign to make you part of the group. You can find a $50 sign, if it’s rusted and shot up with bullet holes. As long as it interests you, it interests the group.”