Collecting Florida Railroad and Trolley Memorabilia

by Seth H. Bramson

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1996

Florida's unique development - through and up to the early forties - is almost solely based on the actions of the railroad builders, who, in some cases, owned the land that was sold to farmers, settlers and business people. While the growth of railroads is not unique to this state, the total entwinement of the hospitality industry with the railroads (in many cases, hotels and railroads were under the same ownership) is of such consequence that Florida's growth is almost totally linked to the three great railroad builders of the state, all of whom, coincidentally, had the first name "Henry."

The gate sign from New York's Penn Station announced the departure of the famed "Havana Special". Gate signs and drumheads (name signs fron the rear of trains) are much sought after mementos. All photos courtesy of the author.

Henry Flagler, Henry Plant and Henry Sanford are the "Henry triumvirate", the men who, for all intent and purpose, built Florida. Each developed a different section of the state: Flagler the east coast, Sanford the center, Plant the west coast.

The other form of pre-bus surface transportation that helped to build the cities of Florida was the street railway, which, in Florida, took three forms: horse powered, battery operated, and electrically (overhead wire) driven. Florida also had some very limited operations using gasoline motors and sails for power. Interestingly enough, the response of most people, when told that Florida had trolley cars, is of complete disbelief. The most common response is "Naaahhh!" But it's true! In fact, the last passenger carrying trolley operated in Florida in 1952, with the last freight operation using overhead trolley wire ceasing it's operation around 1955.

This model of an Auto Train engine is not a "toy train", but rather, a special train built in "O" gauge for Auto-Train president, Eugene Garfield. Highly valuable.

What is there to collect? Since the rail systems, both railroad and trolley, were so intertwined with the development of the state, there is much that is collectible, running the gamut from railroad postcards to postcards of city scenes showing the streetcars (see Of That Place...But Of This Time, A&ARF, Winter/Spring 1993), to the loftier levels of railroad collectibles such as dining car china, rare and early timetables, booklets, brochures, wax sealers, signs, uniforms, photographs, lanterns, locks and keys and other paper and "hardware" items.

Collecting Florida railroad memorabilia has, however, a dimension entirely unique to the state, and one that is not matched by any other type or form of railroad collectible, for Florida had the Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension: the railroad that went to sea, 156 miles from Miami to Key West, mostly over a series of bridges of lengths of up to seven miles. Like railroads such as the Colorado Midland or the New York, Ontario & Western, the FEC's Key West extension has taken on a lore and cult following of its own.

Railroad badges are a major collectible, but beware, fakes and repros are flooding the market.

Although there are innumerable "great" Florida railroad and trolley items to seek out and collect, nothing reaches the level of Key West Extension memorabilia, for several reasons, two of which are that the extension was, in and of itself, possibly the greatest single railroad construction feat in American history, and second, that it was so short lived. The first train reached Key West on January 22, 1912, and the hurricane of September 2, 1935, destroyed 40 miles of roadbed, track and embankments and led to the abandonment of the railroad below Florida City.

This is the only builder's plate taken intact from the fabled Seven Mile Bridge. Signs are very collectible.

People collect material not just from the three great railroad systems that served Florida: the FEC, the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, but, also, from the three other national lines that served only a small portion of the state. Those lines included the Frisco, the L&N, and the Southern. Additionally, there is a strong interest in "predecessor" roads, those railroads which were taken over, bought, or merged into the larger, surviving companies, and the "short lines," which are small, independent railroads that have continued to operate in an era of mergers and consolidations.

Antiques dealers, people with casual interest, and collectors should all be conscious of one very important fact regarding railroad memorabilia and collectibles: if it isn't marked with the name, initials or emblem of the company, stay away from it. Only the advanced collectors, who have studied the field for years, know for certain, or can ascertain, if an unmarked item was actually used on the railroad.

The other issue of importance in dealing with railroadiana is age. There is very little issued by transportation companies after about 1955 that has much value. Generally, the old adage, "the older the better" (with some exceptions) should be heeded.

The other topic of this article is trolleys, or perhaps more properly phrased, "street railways". What is there to collect? A great deal! Street railway items run the gamut from photographs, postcards, slides, newspaper clippings and ads, to motorman and conductor badges and uniforms, signs, fareboxes (an arcane item, tough to prove origin - be careful here!), and other interesting ephemera such as old records, tickets, transfers, stock certificates, prospectuses, and the like. Again, though, be warned: if it isn't marked, stay away from it.

The ubiquitous railroad lantern. Always desirable, but prices range from a few dollars for "short-globes" from common roads (ie. the Pennsylvania and the NYC), to thousands for very rare lanterns from short lines and obscure railroads.

Unlike the collecting of items such as beer cans and baseball cards, each of which has collectible value, Florida railroad and trolley memorabilia has both collectible and intrinsic historic value. Consequently, although the former may, momentarily, bring ridiculously inflated prices, railroad and trolley memorabilia is an investment which will continue to grow in value over the long term.

Good luck with your collecting.

About the Author:
Seth Bramson, a lifelong Floridian, is the author of "Speedway to Sunshine: the Story of the Florida East Coast Railway". He is Florida's foremost railroad historian.

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