By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
Because trains are so large, and require plenty of space if you want to run them or even display them, much of railway preservation has been a group effort. It usually requires either a non-profit corporation or a for-profit railroad to make it happen. Yes, there are folks with cabooses in their back yards and private car owners (although Amtrak is making their lives more difficult), but tourist railroads or museums owned and run by individuals are rare.
Railroadiana is the subset of preservation devoted to the small objects that survived even when the railroads and their services did not. Think dining car china and silver, lanterns, signs, switch locks and keys, builders plates, timetables, photos and other railroad related hardware and ephemera. Museums have plenty, but affordability and modest size has permitted private collections to thrive.
People with like interests tend to find each other and one result is the Railroadiana Collectors Association, Inc. (RCAI) which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. I had not heard of RCAI until they advertised in the latest issue of TRAINS Magazine, so I called its president Roger Hoffmann to get the story.
RCAI is run by volunteers and currently has about 450 members, all individuals rather than clubs or chapters. Like most railway museum members, they tend to be older. Membership once was about 1000, then gradually declined to about 250. It has rebounded, Hoffmann said, thanks to marketing and to younger collectors wanting to connect with each other. Many of the newcomers are professional railroaders. As Hoffmann says, “If you have an interest in railroads, you tend to have an interest in history”. He feels that the hobby has stabilized and is no longer in decline.
Why join RCAI? It publishes a glossy quarterly magazine plus an e-newsletter. There’s an annual meeting at the Gaithersburg (Maryland) Railroadiana Show. Collecting railroadiana is all about the opportunity to buy, sell and trade, which makes Gaithersburg a good venue. Members get free want ads in the magazine, which features a calendar of train shows around North America.
Hoffmann says the most popular collectibles are china, silver, lanterns and locks and keys. However, interest is growing in the areas of tools, bells, whistles and mechanical parts. Although there are plenty of generalist collectors, many tend to specialize in a particular category.
Many railway museums have railroadiana collections, but RCAI is not formally affiliated with any museums, although its members may be.
What happens to collections when elderly collectors die and their heirs don’t share the interest? In some cases the collection goes to a museum. The excellent drumhead collection now at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay is a good example. According to Hoffmann, the recent trend is for knowledgeable auction houses with internet capability and a national reach to pick up collections, which are then auctioned off mostly to private individuals.
For more info on RCAI, go to www.railroadcollectors.org.