Railroads were the main mode of transportation for people and freight in the 19th century and most of the 20th century. A recent sale at Chupp Auctions in Indiana of vintage railroad collectibles included signs, lanterns, locks, builder’s plates, train whistles and bells from many railroad companies. Prices peaked at $2,880 for a Grand Trunk Western Railroad steam whistle. The Grand Trunk Railway operated in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, and in six eastern American states.

Vintage brass steam whistles and bells are often unusual and elaborate. A train whistle or air whistle (originally referred to as a steam trumpet) is a device on a steam locomotive used to warn that a train is approaching, and to communicate with rail workers. An unmarked brass steam whistle sold for $330 (pictured on the cover). A brass air-operated locomotive bell from PM (Pere Marquette) Railroad sold for $360.  The Pere Marquette operated in the Great Lakes region and southern Ontario. 

Railroad tracks stretch for thousands of miles, so security is important. Railroad locks should be strong and durable. They evolved from ornate customized versions which are more collectible than standard-issue locks. The early styles, often called “fancy back” locks, usually had three-dimensional designs and included the railroad’s name or initials. Heart-shaped locks were common and used to lock switches. Original patina adds to value. There were many railroad locks in this auction, a lifetime collection of a diehard railroad collector, and most sold for under $100. But a rare brass C. ST. L&P (Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh) Railroad lock, sold for $1,920, even without its key. A 1913 American Locomotive Company’s bronze builder’s plate sold for $840.

Lanterns also were another important tool. They were used to send signals to and from train conductors, track linemen and railway staff. Older examples were often visually appealing. The lantern is basically a metal cage that protects an interior light source. There are five basic types of lanterns: tall globe lanterns, short globes, fixed globes, conductors’ lanterns and inspectors’ lanterns. A BRB & L (Boston Revere, Beach + Lynn Railroad) lantern sold for $120.

A restored switch lantern from the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Railroad, brought $174. A switch lantern was placed next to a manual operating lever that controlled the position of a switch in a railroad track. The lever changed the position of the movable rails to guide a train’s movement from one route to another at a railway junction, or from a main track to a siding track.

Vintage railroad tools are valued because they represent the labor that was needed to build a system of tracks. A C&A (Chicago & Alton) Railroad tie-marking hammer sold for $48, while a collection of railroad tie date nails ranging from 1907 to 1940 sold for $36. The Chicago & Alton Railroad was bought by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1931.

The classic “X”-shaped railroad crossing sign, called a crossbuck, is used to indicate a level railway crossing. It is required at all public crossings. Crossbucks are sometimes supplemented by electrical warnings of flashing lights, a bell, or a “boom gate” that descends to block the road and prevent traffic from crossing the tracks. A crossbuck “Railroad Crossing” sign went for $180. It was in good condition, but missing some of its “cat’s eyes,” the embedded, round, glass reflectors that appear to light up by bouncing approaching light back in the dark, much like cats’ eyes at night.

Photos are courtesy of Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC, 890 S. Van Buren Street, Shipshewana, IN 46565. Its Sept. 25, 2020, Lifetime Railroad Collection Auction catalog is archived at ChuppsAuction.com.

railroad steam whistle

Steam whistle, brass, 12 in. h. by 2 1/2 in. w., $330.

railroad lantern

Railroad lantern, from BRB & L (Boston, Revere Beach & Lynn Railroad), 1875–1937. The Boston Revere, Beach + Lynn Railroad was one of the most heavily traveled stretches of railroad in the country, carrying passengers into the Boston area from seaside resorts from 1875 to 1940. By 1914, the railroad was carrying over seven million travelers each year. $120.

railroad builder's plate

American Locomotive company builder’s plate, bronze, from Michigan Central Railroad, dated October 1913, 7 in. h. by 13 in. w., $840.

grand trunk railroad steam whistle

Grand Trunk Western Railroad steam whistle, 24-in. h. by 6 1/ 2 in. d.; overall height 33 in., $2,880.

railroad lock

C. St. L.&P. R.R. Co. lock, brass, attached chain, key missing, $1,920.

railroad tie marking hammer

C&A RR tie marking hammer, Chicago & Alton Railroad, $48.

railroad tie date nails

Lot of 30 railroad tie date nails, some brass, ranging from 1907 to 1940, $36 for the lot.

railroad crossing sign

Railroad Crossing sign, crossbuck with cat’s eye reflectors (a few missing), includes pole bracket, 48 in., $180.

railroad switch lantern

Switch lantern, Chesapeake & Ohio RR, McGrew Yard, Flint, Michigan, restored, $174.

railroad locomotive bell

Locomotive bell, PM RR (Pere Marquette Railroad), brass, air operated, 12 in., $360.



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