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.

Below: Different views of a round reproduction PRR number plate, courtesy of Bill Decker. It is cast iron and weighs approximately 25 pounds. It was supposedly cast from the original mold back in the late 60's or early 70's by a model railroad organization. The most obvious sign that this is a reproduction is the shape of some of the numbers: The "4" and "0" are both incorrect per the tracings for numerals blueprints from the PRR and obviously different when compared with authentic examples. Also there is some minor variation in the size of the plate: the originals are 16 3/4" wide per the blueprint drawing and authentic originals; this one is 16 1/2 across the face although 16 3/4" across the back. Click on the thumbnails for larger versions; use your BACK button to return to this page.

Below: Different views of a reproduction PRR keystone number plate, courtesy of Bill Decker. Right: An authentic PRR keystone number plate -- photo taken at the 2005 Gaithersburg railroadiana show. Another authentic keystone plate is shown at the bottom of the page. Click on the thumbnails for larger versions.
Below: Different views of a reproduction PRR Class T1 keystone number plate. Notice the bend or crease in the plate -- the originals had such a crease to conform to the shape of the T1's nose. Click on the thumbnails for larger versions.

 

Additional comments....

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.  

There are also real keystones and round number plates with added on numbers. These were made to replace those pieces that were damaged either by wrecks or rough treatment in a shop. Some had their original numbers ground off and new numbers applied with screws by the PRR. Although close in design, these new numbers are not exact to the plans like the original cast ones. In fact there are J1/J1a plates that had the screwed-on numbers probably from the start. Casting was being phased out in the 1950s for this purpose as steam shops cut back. The cast pieces bring much more than those with added on numbers although both are the real thing. Also in looking at the numbers, it should be noted that the size and dimensions changed slightly for three and less digit pieces as compared to four-digit plates. The three-digit remakes have the same size numbers as the four-digit ones.

At the prices these items command you have to be educated. The trained eye is the best as you can be fooled easily.

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. 

Regarding casting numbers...

Keystone Plates: Casting Number X18183 -- originals; X18183A -- futura numbers 1940-1941 (example shown at right; very few were made); X18183B -- replacements made starting 1942 until the end. 

Round Number Plates: No Casting Numbers -- originals, although there were some Baldwin plates that had a Baldwin casting number in them and the numbers did not exactly match PRR standard blueprints; X10010A -- futura; X10010B -- replacements.

The PRR sold number plates directly to collectors starting in the 1950's. They were always shipped REA. Round number plate were $4.75 and a builders plate was priced at $3.30. From the many early collectors I have spoken with, you got what they sent you rather than a specific piece (or number) that you may have wanted.

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.

Thanks to all who contributed information, photos and comments to this page!

Footnote.

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.