Since the beginning of the railroads in the 1830s in the United States, collecting railroad memorabilia has long been an interesting sector for antique collectors across the country.
Railroadiana, as it is commonly referred to, can be items that are generally railroad marked and used on the railroads throughout history. Examples include hand lanterns, signage, china and silver used on dining cars, padlocks/keys, posters, timetables and even railroad signals.
“Like a lot of sectors, the public perception is railroadiana was being ‘aged’ out by an aging demographic slow to change and there was beginning to be a lack of interest and enthusiasm from younger collectors,” said Chad Harpole, who just turned 40 and is President of the Railroadiana Collectors Association, Inc. “I think the perception this hobby is full of older folks doesn’t reflect reality and the interest and hammer prices we saw in recent auctions reflects the health of the hobby.”
The Spring, 2022 Auctions featuring railroadiana yielded some phenomenal results for consigners, auction houses and buyers alike. “This spring was a perfect storm for railroadiana collectors,” Harpole said.
“I’ve been collecting hot and heavy since 2014 and folks that have been in the hobby for 40 to 50 years tell me there has never been this much quality stuff from well-known collectors available for purchase or trading hands,” Harpole said. “Unfortunately, most of these items became available due to the passing of major collectors across the country; but a positive point for these collectors’ legacies and families is there appears to be plenty of interest from folks wanting to become the next caretakers for these items, including myself.”
The highlights really began on Super Bowl Sunday, February 13, when an extremely rare Kansas Pacific Railway lantern with wheel cut marked globe sold for nearly $42,000 on eBay. “This is the second railroad lantern to eclipse the $40,000 mark in a year,” Harpole said. “The age and scarcity of the lantern lead to the huge amount of interest and bidding.”
Railroad Memories, a well-known railroadiana exclusive auction house, concluded their auction a week later on February 20th with several notable pieces. The star of the show wound up being a beautiful Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf timetable and brochure from 1898. The colorful graphics made the brochure appear like a comic book. It’s near perfect condition, scarcity and rare railroad brought a phenomenal $5,750 at the hammer.
March went out like a lion for railroad auctions and prices realized. Rail and Road Auctions, a fairly new auction house based in Lafayette, Indiana, held a two-day auction with items from two collections located in the Midwest. A beautiful New York Central Railroad builders’ photo from the American Locomotive Works brought $2,000 plus premiums and fees. The appeal in the piece was the famed streamlined New York Central Hudson locomotive with streamlining designed by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. Another unique piece in the Rail and Road Auction was a General Railway Signal Centralized Traffic Control Machine from the Burlington Railroad. This piece would have been used by the train dispatchers to line switches and control train movement on a particular section of the Burlington’s Mainline. This massive piece brought $14,000 plus fees.
The interest and strong hammer prices continued to Morphy Auctions’ two-day petroliana and railroadiana auction featuring items from the late Brian Maiher’s collection. Maiher was well-known as the country’s largest railroadiana collectors who passed away unexpectedly in 2019. Maiher’s massive collection has been auctioned through Morphy’s the last two years. There were some really unique and outstanding pieces in this spring auction including a beautiful, massive, cast-iron station sign from the Long Island Railroad/Pennsylvania Railroad for Ozone Park, a neighborhood in the southwestern section of Queens in New York. The sign hammered at $10,800 with fees.
“We are seeing record-high prices and interest in railroad signage,” Harpole said. “I truly believe these well-known, nationwide auction houses who market themselves regularly are helping bring a lot of Americanna and Petroliana crossover into the railroadiana collecting world. Someone might have shown up to the auction to purchase a high-end gas or oil porcelain sign and seen a large, cast-iron station sign with a catchy or well-known name like “Buffalo” or “Rochester” and seen a great value. I think this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”
Another unique piece in the Morphy Auction was a massive three-chime steam whistle manufactured by Crosby. “There were only a few hundred of these whistles ever produced by Crosby for use on industrial buildings including railroad shops and roundhouses,” Harpole said. “Most of these whistles didn’t survive the World War II scrap drive and only a few dozen of these whistles are known to exist today. The size, scale and sound are unmatched by any steam whistle. It’s truly considered the holy grail for whistle collectors.” The whistle hammered at over $17,000 with fees.
When people think of railroadiana, they immediately think of a railroad lantern. Morphy’s had a variety of railroad lanterns from the Maiher collection including beautiful conductor lanterns, to ultra- rare two-colored globes. One notable piece, a Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad lantern brought over $6,000 including fees. The lantern was manufactured by the Steam Gauge and Lantern Company and included a beautiful, clear cast globe marked for the railroad. “There were two people who really wanted that R.W. &O. lantern,” Harpole said. “It was a near mint example of a railroad that existed from 1842-1891 before being purchased by the New York Central.”
Soulis Auctions, located near Kansas City, held a spring auction April 9 selling the collection of the late Ed McHugh from Ohio. This is the fourth auction Soulis has held featuring railroadiana since 2019 and all have yielded strong results. There was a variety of items in the Soulis Auction including a beautiful stainless-steel logo from the Rock Island Railroad which commanded nearly $4,000 after fees. “This nose herald would have been on the front of one the railroad’s very early streamlined diesels,” Harpole said. “Most of these diesels would have been scrapped in the early 1970s as passenger service declined across the country and it’s a tough piece to find.”
For those interested in learning more about collecting railroadiana or learning more about the hobby, consider joining the Railroadiana Collectors Association. RCA was founded in 1971 and membership includes a quarterly, all-color, 40-page magazine and numerous Zoom informational seminars throughout the year. “A new website and more innovative ways to network our members with other people interested in this hobby are coming in 2022,” Harpole said.