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Collectors Treasure Railroad Memorabilia

A few days ago, I was walking on the Wheeling Heritage Trail in Warwood with my daughter and her three sons. Two of the boys were on bikes and we followed with a stroller and her youngest son. We came to some side rails that remain in place and lead from the walking trail into a large parking lot.

Naturally, my grandson Gabriel, 7, noticed the still visible train rails running through the parking lot that were used to take loaded trains off the main track and into the nearby factory. These rails actually lead right into the factory.

I explained how we used to have train tracks instead of walking trails and how years ago there were working trains that transported goods to this workplace. (I discovered on Wikipedia that the small tracks that extend off the main track are called spurs.)

It’s easy to see why trains still have such a following, especially in the world of antiques and history buffs.

Memorabilia from the heyday of American rail travel, known in the collecting world as railroadiana, includes things like conductor badges, train bells, uniform buttons, ornate keys, lanterns, locks, postcards, Pullman blankets, timetables and uniforms.

But the train treasure that attracts the broadest appeal is railroad china. This is the china that was once used in the dining cars of passenger trains as they chugged along through the American landscape, taking travelers on journeys that often took days, rather than hours.

Since there were over 185 different railroad lines in the heyday of train travel, that’s a lot of china and a wide variety of patterns to search for. Some collectors choose to focus their collection on one railroad line, others try to gather china from as many different railroads as possible.

Traveling during the era of passenger railroads was a much slower time when travel included time enough to look out the window and enjoy the scenic landscape, stopping at stations along the way. The train companies made their customers comfortable and created an elegant dining room atmosphere, even though they were moving along the rails.

Dining china included everything from butter pat plates, celery plates and dinner settings to pitchers, sherbet bowls and chocolate pots. Many railroads designed their own china pattern, others used stock china and added their logo. A few didn’t add any identifying marks at all. Glassware and silver-plated flatware were produced for railroad use too and dining tables were fancy and included starched linens.

The photo in the column shows a blue and white plate that is part of the famous Centenary china once used on the B&O. It is marked on the back with a full back stamp that gives the manufacturer’s name (Scammell’s Lamberton China, patent applied for) and eight milestone dates of the B&O’s trip across America beginning with its founding in 1827 in Baltimore.

The B&O reached Wheeling in 1852 and our own B&O terminal, now beautifully restored and used daily as West Virginia Northern Community College, was active till 1962.

This attractive china appealed to travelers and the B&O management issued a booklet that described the significance of the scenes found on the china and offered the china to travelers as a souvenir to take home. A plate cost one dollar then. Today it might sell for $50, depending on variables like condition of the plate, location of the sale, the interested buyer and other market variables.

The one in the column shows a lovely scene of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in the center of the dinner plate. Round the rim are a variety of historic train images that detail the evolution of train cars, for example “Tom Thumb,” the first American-built locomotive. The Harper’s Ferry plate is the first in a sequence of scenic plates produced.

The back stamp dates this plate to the original 1927 set. Scammel China Company of Trenton, N.J., produced the well-loved china and the “patent applied for” dates it to the first year of production. There were two color variations, the blue one shown here and a rare white background version, according to the website, railroadiana.org.

Train enthusiasts today refer to this as the Centenary pattern though it was originally referred to as the Colonial pattern. An interesting fact is that the original 1827 design that this Centenary china copies was taken from two souvenir plates made by one of the leading manufacturers of Staffordshire china, Enoch Wood of Burslem, England. (Staffordshire, England was the hub of blue and white.)

Another neat fact about this beautiful B&O Centenary china is the simple fact that it is blue and white. Blue and white china is one of the most popular collectibles ever. With its clean look and easy to use style, it’s always a classic. Blue and white china can be incorporated into so many decorating schemes and with the popularity of toile today, these nostalgic scenes attract new attention.

For collectors that are just starting out, a reference book is always a plus and Doug McIntyre wrote and published a guide on this topic with great color photos, “Official Guide to Railroad Dining Car China” (1990). Another book, “Dining on Rails” is by Richard Luckin and dates to 1998. Both are out of print and so you’ll have to find them on Amazon.com or at a used bookshop or antiques emporium.

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