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Fake Number Plates: Pennsylvania Railroad
Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) steam locomotives were instantly recognizable by their distinctive number plates -- either round or keystone-shaped -- mounted on the front of the smokebox. Only a few PRR steam locomotives have survived, and salvaged number plates from those that were scrapped are especially prized by railroadiana collectors.
Since the end off PRR steam -- roughly the mid 1950s -- an unknown number of PRR number plates have been reproduced. In fact, reproductions continue to be made. Some have been made of a material different from the originals and therefore are reasonably easy to identify. The originals were made of cast iron; some reproductions have been made of a resin material (see page on resin reproductions ) or aluminum. However, other reproductions have apparently been made of cast iron, and these can be more problematic to detect.
While there is controversy over the ethics of producing plate reproductions [see footnote], everyone can agree on the importance of documenting them to the extent possible. The big problem with PRR number plate reproductions is that the extent and scope of the problem is more or less a mystery. A model railroad club in Pennsylvania reportedly made some reproductions decades ago, but it seems most of the details have been lost to time. There are rumors of other reproductions, but these are unconfirmed.
Following are examples of PRR number plate reproductions. More information will be posted as we get it. See Contact Us page to email us with comments or information.
Almost all of the PRR number plates that I have seen have had a casting number on the back. This includes original plates and reproduction plates. I have seen and had one original PRR number plate that did NOT have a casting number. That was an exception to the general rule. The story that I have heard is that the [---] Model Railroad Club had access to the original PRR patterns many years ago. They had plates made up so that they could have a complete set of PRR class oval builder's plates for their display.
The [---] Model Railroad Club, as I understand it,
made reproductions in the 1960s to match real builders' plates
in their collection for display purposes. They were never intended
to be passed off as the real thing.
I have seen fake brass keystones with the number cast on the back as well as cast iron reproductions that also had casting numbers on the back.
As background, here's some information on authentic PRR number plates: The first keystone appeared in September 1927.
The round numbers plates were replaced on passenger locomotives
with keystones in 1929-1930.
For camparison, this authentic PRR number plate was sent in by a collector with the following information: "Here is a picture of my keystone numberplate from K4s 5475. This is a genuine cast iron keystone and not a reproduction. It has X18183 letters cast in the back of the number plate, measures 20 inches wide at the widest point and 17 inches wide at the top of the keystone, and is 17-5/8 inches high. The three mounting lugs have been shortened to 1/2 inch for mounting to a walnut wood and strap iron bracket that is mounted to a walnut wood base." Click on the image for a larger version.
Here is a reproduction plate but done in a very responsible way. The collector who commisioned this plate around 2008 specified that the word "REPRO" be cast in the back of the plate in a recessed manner such that the word could not be ground off. It is aluminum - complete with mounting studs. The real 5495 number plate is owned by the PRR Technical & Historical Society and is on display in the Lewistown, Pennsylvania Station. Click on the image for a larger version.
Thanks to all who contributed information, photos and comments to this page!
Nothing generates more controversy in collecting than the subject of fakes and reproductions. While there are some clear cases of fraud where most everyone agrees on the ethics (or lack thereof), some cases are not so clear cut. For example, as attested to by comments on this page, some reproduction number plates were made decades ago as hobbyist projects or commemorative items with no fraudulent intent to make money by deception. Plates were less expensive back then, the number of collectors was smaller, and generally these items didn't quite have the "holy relic" patina that they have today. As has been stated many times, there is nothing wrong with reproductions identifiable as such. The problem occurs when people are fooled or misled. The policy of this website is to report information for collectors to use in making decisions but to avoid naming names or making judgments about the intent of those who have produced reproductions.