Although rail travel has evolved around the world into a modern, high-speed transportation system, Americans still reminisce over the golden days of railroad exploration. Antique railroad tools in collections across the United States and beyond hint at the laborious and lawless period in Reconstruction America, where having a railroad come to town was as momentous as the annual county fair or circus. But, before Casey Junior comes down the track and asks you for a little tune up, make sure that you've got the right tools on-hand to send him on his way.
The Transcontinental Railroad: Birth of the American Railway System
Prior to the Transcontinental Railroad (a series of rail lines that extend from East to West coast and back again), the American rail system was unregulated and inconsistent. Not every railroad used the same gauges, meaning that certain locomotives couldn't travel on specific tracks. This limited travel--particularly in the rural south and west--and the assault on the railways during the Civil War proved that the country needed a singular system to unite its agricultural systems with its production centers. Thus, the Transcontinental Railroad was born, and the eruption of railway communities began.
Therefore, many consider this period between the 1860s and the 1920s to be the peak railroad era in the United States. What was left behind from this long-gone era is a tangible legacy in the forms of the tools that were used to create, extend, and maintain the railroad.
Types of Antique Railroad Tools to Collect
Undoubtedly, railroad memorabilia are highly collectible. Even antique train sets molded in the image of these older steam trains can sell for hundreds of dollars. Thus, there's a big group of people around the world who like to find things relating to the railroads.
Interestingly, these collectible tools aren't just limited to the types that were used to create the railroad, but also those that were used to maintain their functions, whether they served passengers or transported cargo.
Tools Used to Build the Railroad
Extending a rail line was hard work. Just look at the legendary folktale of John Henry, who fought for workers' rights and against the growing fears that machines would replace everyone's jobs. Henry eventually died in his fight to break ground through a mountain before the machines could. This process of extending the railroads across the United States involved hammering in giant railroad spikes to lay down metal gauge that the railcars could pass over.
Often, these tools were labeled by whichever railroad company kept them on hand for their employees' use, so it can be a cool adventure for someone to trace where exactly in the country a specific tool might have come from. Most of these railroad companies are well-documented, making it easy to connect a tool to a railroad. Some of these tools that you can encounter include:
- Railroad screws
- Spike hammers
- Screw jacks
- Spike cutters
- Monkey wrenches
Additionally, some of the most famous American railroad companies to look for tools from are:
- Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O)
- Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR)
- Union Pacific Railroad (UPR)
- Southern Pacific Railroad (SP/SSW)
- Western Pacific Railroad (WP)
- Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR)
- Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF)
Operational Tools Used to Maintain the Railroad
One of the most popular types of railroad-related antiques doesn't actually have anything to do with building the railroads, but rather with operating them. Both hand-held and stationary card punchers were vital for keeping order on the historic railway, as conductors ensured that paying customers were properly admitted onto their railcars by punching passengers' tickets. These particular tools are an inexpensive and fascinating collectible that even first-time collectors can enjoy.
One of the coolest things about these railroad tools is that they come with a variety of punch shapes, including flames, bells, diamonds, crosses, and more. If you really want to wow your kids or your classroom, switch out your regular hole punchers with one of these antique bad boys.
Antique Railroad Tools Values
Largely, antique railroad tools aren't a super expensive collectible to have. Generally, you can find individual tools selling for anywhere between $5-$150 in the current market, with the items that've been either restored or cared for selling for the highest amounts. Rusted and dirty tools can still sell, but you'll have a harder time trying to find someone to actually buy them, and you won't make that significant of a profit.
Now, the same can't be said for larger equipment, such as screw jacks, which are really popular in online auctions today. These complex tools will sell for more money because they're harder to find in your average antique stores, and they're more expensive to ship/transport if you're buying them online.
Similarly, antique railroad tools from the mid to late-19th century are more desirable to collectors because of their historical significance in terms of helping establish the American railroad system. In contrast, vintage railroad tools from the 20th century aren't as valuable as their older counterparts, since rail travel wasn't as popular at the time.
For example, these are what a few antique railroad tools recently sold online for:
- Antique railroad wrench - Sold for $5
- Vintage McBee railroad ticket punch - Sold for $8.99
- Two antique Louisville & Nashville railroad chisels - Sold for $50
- 1930s Illinois Iron & Bolt Company screw jack in poor condition - Sold for $55
- Antique Illinois Iron & Bolt Company screw jack in good condition - Sold for $75
- Vintage Pennsylvania Railroad ticket punch with its holster - Sold for $125
Where to Buy and Sell Antique Railroad Tools
Typically, antique railroad tools aren't going to stand out in an antique store, thrift shop, or consignment sale. This is because they're usually lumped together with other older tools, and they don't grab anyone's attention. Thus, it's best to find either specific retailers or searchable auction websites to buy tools from or sell tools through.
Here are some of the best places to buy or sell your antique railroad tools online:
- McHugh Locomotive & Equipment - McHugh Locomotive & Equipment is a restoration company that specializes in antique rail equipment. They both buy and sell old railroad tools, as well as works with heritage sites and museums to improve their collections.
- Railroad Collectibles - Railroad Collectibles outlines on their website that they'll make an offer on both individual items and collections of railroad memorabilia s long as they date from before 1920. They also offer free appraisals on your goods and will try to help you identify items you're unsure about.
- eBay - The initial place that almost everyone visits when looking for collectibles online is eBay because it has a huge inventory and an unusual assortment of goods. Unfortunately, they're not the most precise website to search through and there's no guarantee that the items you're getting are exactly what they're advertised as.
- Etsy - A second go-to for online collectibles and antiques is Etsy, which has the same drawbacks as eBay but with better functionality and a modern design touch.
Relive Your Ancestors' Favorite Pastime
Traveling around on trains across the American landscape was one of the great liberators for the American people during the late-19th century. While not everything that came of the railroads and western expansion was a good thing, the railroads themselves continue to enthrall people to this day. Before you try to join up on the nearest historic railroad attraction, make sure that you've got the right tools for the job.