Thomas Jefferson once said that the view of Harpers Ferry from the nearby heights was "worth a trip across the Atlantic." Charles Miller estimates that the same view, etched in blue, on a B&O Railroad dinner plate, is worth "somewhere between $45 and $100." But he cautions that a lot of depends on whether the plate was made with the first sets in 1927, when the Baltimore & Ohio marked its centennial by staging the Fair of the Iron Horse, or later. Miller, who has never been on a train, even the Metro, and his partner, a compulsive collector named Alan Altman, are staging the second annual East Coast Railroadiana Show and Sale Sunday from 10 to 5 at the Gaithersburg Fairgrounds.
"Everything connected with the railroads has become highly collectible and sought-after," said Miller, who along with 75 other collectors will display his collection at Sunday's show. Everything from timetables to champagne buckets engraved with the name of the line will be available for sale or trade there.
"The most frequently collected railroad items are china, silver and lanterns," according to Altman, but real railfans will collect almost anything. Date nails, for example, were hammered into the ties to mark the age of the bed and were useful in determining what kind of wood rotted first. Switch locks and keys were used to prevent mischievous kids from rerouting the trains. Such items are so prized now that countfits have begun to appear, Miller says.
The switch keys, for example, are stamped with the name of the railroad and the number of the switch. An unscrupolus counterfeiter could just take an ordinary $1 key stamp it, and turn it into a $15 piece of railroad memorabilia. But the cheap imitations probably wouldn't fool the real collector.
"An ardent key collector could just look at the bit on the key and tell you what switch it's for without even looking at the stamp," said Altman.
Altman, who sells wholesale auto parts for a living, and Miller, who teaches finance at George Washington University, collect all manner of railroad memorabilia for resale. But their private collecting passion is for railroad china.
Altman came by the hobby honestly. His parents, antique dealers from Buffalo, New York, wrote a book on Buffalo pottery, and two Buffalo firms produced china for many commercial establishments, including the railroads. While in college at Kent State, Altman met Miller, another compulsive collector who at that time was heavily into duck stamps - stamps duck hunters must have put on their licenses. Miller was easily converted to railroad china collecting.
In the good old days, says Altman, railroads were so competitive that they tried to outdo one another in pampering their customers.
"It wasn't like now. They weren't regulated, and there were overlapping lines," said Altman. "There were an unlimited number of ways to get to Chicago, for example. Attractive china was a way to attract customers away from other lines."
The Chesapeake & Ohio, which claimed lineage back to George Washington since the first president, early in his career, had surveyed land for the C&O Canal, used an elaborate George Washington service. The gold-bordered plates, with a portrait of the older George in the center, were also sold in the dining car, in case you wanted a souvenir of your trip. According to the contemporary price lists - also collected by Miller and Altman - a large service plate sold for $4.50.
"They sold them at a loss for good public relations. No wonder the railroads went bankrupt," Miller said.
Many of the motifs were regional. The china on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad featured the Alamo. The Baltimore & Ohio featured scenes of Harpers Ferry, the Cheat River, the Potomac Valley and various viaducts that the line ran over. The Santa Fe featured the California poppy. Union Pacific china showed scenes along its route, including Indians ambushing a stage coach.
Some of the most valuable railroad china bears the sleeping Chessie cat, a reminder of the line's promise that passengers would sleep like kittens on board. Some Chessie cat plates bring as much a $1,000.
"They're very rare," explained Altman, "And to get them you're also competing with people who collect anything to do with cats.
Nobody knows how many patents were issued for patterns of railroad china, according to Altman, who has tried to find out. And nobody knows what because of it all, though Altman suspects that much of it was simply thrown away as railroads went out of the passenger business.
"We've even talked to porters who implied that they sometimes threw it away when they didn't have time to wash it before the train got to the terminal," said Altman.
The B&O kept the patent on its china and still manufacturers it for sale at its museum in Baltimore. The current china, clearly marked as reproduction, has never been used on trains - which Miller and Altman feel detracts from its value.
Now railroad diners on short lines generally dine off styrofoam, and even long-distance lines generally use unmarked plates. According to Altman, Antrak once considered using its own china pattern and even had some prototypes made, but the directors rejected the idea, concluding that the china would be stolen by avid collectors who gobble up everything connected with the romance of the railroad.