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How To Collect Railroad Date Nails

Nolen is an avid collector of railroad date nails and antique bottles.

Photo of old railroad date nails in my collection.

Photo of old railroad date nails in my collection.

How To Pull Date Nails

How To Get Started Collecting Railroad Date Nails

Among the more unusual items of railroad memorabilia that people collect are date nails. Over the years I've found many of them along abandoned railroad tracks and now have about 200 in my collection. Some serious railroad date nail collectors have thousands of them in their collections. Above you can see a video about how to pull date nails in telephone poles. This same method will work with railroad date nails.

What Are Railroad Date Nails?

After a piece of timber was shaped into a railroad tie, treated with creosote and placed in a railroad track, a nail bearing a date stamp, (usually two numbers) was driven into the tie. Other clues, such as the shape of the font, or symbols, gave more information about the railroad tie, such as track ownership. This allowed railroad track inspectors to identify how old railroad ties were so they could be replaced when worn out. In some dry climates a railroad tie might have lasted for half a decade or more. I've found old railroad date nails from the 1930s still in ties installed in working tracks, though I did not remove them.

Why Collect Railroad Date Nails?

It's hard to explain to those who don't love trains and railroads why collecting railroad memorabilia is so much fun. Perhaps it reminds us adults of being kids, playing with model trains, but to me it is more about preserving an important piece of American history. It was the railroad, with its miles of wood and iron tracks that were laid down by hard working people, that helped connect and unify our great nation. So much hard work went into building those tracks by largely forgotten souls, many of whom died way too young and far from their homes in railroad labor camps. Seeing and touching old railroad date nails, some from as far back as the mid 1800's, makes me think of those who must have done this kind of backbreaking work, and also of the majestic old iron horses that plied the tracks above these silent markers of time.

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How To Get Started Collecting Railroad Date Nails

Never remove any objects, including railroad date nails from of a working railroad track. For one thing this is a felony, and for another it can interfere with the railroad's system of identifying dangerous, worn out railroad ties, even though this system of tracking railroad tie age is being phased out.

You can legally find and collect date nails alongside old abandoned railroad tracks, such as those which have been converted to jogging and bike paths under the "rails to trails" program. Old railroad date nails can also be purchased on sites such as eBay. As a gift, I like to give ones with the person's age to my friends on their birthdays.

How Much Are Old Railroad Date Nails Worth?

Some collectors are willing to pay up to several hundred dollars for some of the rarest and oldest railroad date nails, such as those from the very early days of steam trains. Unfortunately one of the best guides to the value of railroad date nails, "Railroad Date Nails, Collecting For Fun" by Norman Jensen, is out of print. You can get a good idea of what they are selling for by watching online auction sites, and from books such as "Railroadiana" The Official Price Guide For 2000 and Beyond".

As a side hobby, I also like to collect old glass bottles, which can also be found alongside abandoned railroad tracks in rural areas. See the Hub, Collecting Old Bottles


Stigma31 from Kingston, ON on April 21, 2011:

I don't think I would collect them but interesting none-the-less voting up!

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