Collectors find links to past at rail show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before airplanes and cars became standard transportation, Americans rode the rails in steel locomotives and ate gourmet meals in dining cars stocked with fine china. Now the best place to find serving platters, switch keys, lamps and other remnants of bygone train travel are at memorabilia shows.

A steady stream of railroad aficionados perused tables brimming with such items inside a ballroom at downtown Baltimore's Wyndham Hotel yesterday for the B&O; 175th Anniversary Railroadiana Show. More than 60 dealers showed specialties, many of them pushing B&O;, Chesapeake & Ohio and Western Maryland goods. Buyers came to beef up their collections.

"I love trains," said Robin R. Shavers, decked out in a blue B&O; T-shirt, a Chessie system cap and jeans with a locomotive belt buckle. "Ever since I was 3 or 4 years old and my aunt bought me a train set, I've been hooked. I love everything about them -- their size, the noise, the history and its sheer power."

Shavers, 49, said he'll drive up to 300 miles from his home in Alexandria, Va., to check out train memorabilia. He carries around a black briefcase -- what he calls his shopping bag -- covered in railway stickers. Pieces of the industry's past -- what insiders call railroadiana -- range from timetables, used tickets and stock certificates to locks, badges and uniforms.

Yesterday's event, which coincided with a national convention of railroad enthusiasts, was much smaller than once planned. The collapse of the B&O; Railroad Museum's roundhouse roof in February forced cancellation of its Fair of the Iron Horse, which was envisioned as the largest railroad pageant and exhibit ever in the United States. The museum expected hundreds of thousands to attend the B&O;'s 175th birthday.

"The B&O; holds a lot of interest. It was a high-quality operation," said Jim Hutzler, whose family came to Baltimore about the same time the B&O; started running trains -- the 1820s. Later, his great-great-grandfather would start the department store that bore the family name for 132 years.

Hutzler said his grandfather introduced him to trains, which piqued his interest in collecting train-related books and brochures showing off art deco designs and whimsical vignettes. "The B&O; Railroad was the first real common carrier railroad of the U.S., and a leader in technical and service-related details," he said. "It was a different era of luxury and comfort."

Jay Hancock, 55, drove from Ocean City to see if he could add to his collection of oval dining platters. Though he walked away empty-handed, he still enjoyed the sights. "Something about railroads, trains and me have always clicked," he said. "Some people outgrow it when they're 8 or 10. I didn't."

Hancock doesn't aim to pick the best plates, but instead hopes to amass a wide variety of pieces. "Dining cars are not what they were in the golden age of railroads," Hancock said. "But china are good connections to years back when dining cars where the pride of railroads."

While other dealers sell pieces of the past, Gene Collora, 62, pushes moments caught in time: a boy waiting for a train on a platform with his father, a Navy subchaser in New York harbor alongside a barge carrying rail cars. Collora sells 11-by-14-inch black and white pictures that span more than 50 years of railway action.

The professional photographer, who spent 38 years working for the Long Island Rail Road, started going to the rail yards with his grandfather as a boy in the Bronx. "I was fascinated with the electric engine and its sparks flying all over the place," Collora said.

"That's how people start chasing trains," said his wife, Sandy Collora.

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