Fake Railroad Keys - "New Old Stock"

The biggest problem confronting the railroad key collector is distinguishing fakes from the real thing. Here the term "real" essentially refers to keys that were actually owned by a railroad and used in service. While a number of fake keys have been documented (see our Fake Keys page), there are likely many more out there that have not been documented. Moreover new fake keys are possibly being made up to the present.

The issue gets even more complicated when considering the issue of "New Old Stock" -- keys that were legitimately made by a manufacturer or even purchased by a railroad, but never used in service. The following comment from a website visitor nicely summarizes the problem:

"One important thing I find surprisingly missing from the Fake Keys page is the Adlake 'new old stock' phenomenon, from when they [Adlake] got out of the key business, as I recall in the mid-'70's or early '80's. Adlake released hundreds of entirely authentic keys from their on-hand overstocks. I vaguely recall seeing a catalog listing of available keys. The one road I particularly remember was McCloud River Railroad because of the obvious rarity. But they had keys for hundreds of railroads on hand at the time. I have seen many Adlake keys since then which I am virtually certain never were on railroad property. These almost deserve a category of their own. Clearly in some sense they are 'authentic', that is, not fake, yet something is missing since they never saw service. I also suspect many of these were (or are) the source for ground-off and remarked keys. A similar aspect of the Adlake key stock disposal is the unissued key stock held by railroads and often dispersed after mergers and abandonments. I saw rings of 50 or more PC (Penn Central) keys, brand new, authentic, but never issued, at some Gaithersburg shows several years back. The above information is all I know on the subject. I suggest there must be someone more familiar with the Adlake selloff, who could contribute some words to fill in the background."

Following are comments that have been made by collectors on this issue. To add more to this discussion, see note below.


Webster describes fake as "1 : to alter, manipulate, or treat so as to impart a false character or appearance to ". Keeping it strictly within the railroad environment - a real key (or any other item) made by a real (original) manufacturer for (or as needed by the manufacturer in his manufacturing process) in a legitimate order from a real railroad can in no possible mindset be labeled Fake! Just as the U.S. Mint manufacturers "proof" coins, and premiums are paid for "un-circulated" coins - in no possible mindset could they be labeled fake! Just as some collectors prefer unfired lanterns, unused china, mint condition passes, etc. (are they to be considered fake too?), some collectors may prefer clean, sharp, unused keys. To try to categorize a real key (or other piece of railroadiana) as fake simply because it was never actually placed into use by the railroad is presumptuous that all others must agree with that individual's personal opinion, and ludicrous. That's like trying to determine old. Webster defines it as - "1 : dating from the remote past : ancient". Is that to say an 1832 railroad item isn't old because it isn't ancient? Is there a chronological timeline established for the proper use of the word "old"? If so, I'd certainly like to see it. -LS

The concerns are far from ludicrous. Coins may not be a great comparison to any category of railroadiana. Every category or railroadiana has its own terms. To grossly generalize about passes, china or lanterns is not a good representation against what has happened with switch keys. A key with a marking that existed in the 1800s on a key that is new and has a known 1960s form is not too authentic in my mind. This I believe
is the real issue.

It might be worth reevaluating the terminology used for switch keys (and perhaps other items) that are not authentic to the era of their use. Vintage is a term that sometimes means reproduced and I will not open Mr Webster to see what he says it is. Sometimes vintage means authentic.

I have tried to explain over-run keys to different collectors. These were produced by Slaymaker and Adlake as late as the 1960s, and they tend to have accurate bit patterns. Every hobby has terms that it uses to describe the things within the hobby. If you sell a G&URR (Grafton & Upton RR) over-run key on ebay and your description says that this is an old 1880s road, I have to shake my head. There is an implication that the key you are offering is from the 1880s. If you are selling a key with ADLAKE in a straight line and it
has a pebble finish, the key it is NOT 1880s. As far as collectors desiring mint/unused items that too would be a major change that I missed in key collecting. We used to use the symbol PW on sales lists to indicate ~pocket wear~. Keys with pocket wear always sold higher than those without. In today’s market with the flooding of over-runs there doesn’t seem to be any real distinction. In keys there was a further distinction between pocket wear and bit wear. Even though it was on a ring in a pocket a key might
not have been used much.

A few terms may help:

Fake - an outright misrepresentation to gain $ -- either an ~older~ item that is known to be no good or a recently reproduced or even a fantasy item. This is similar to the reproduction builder plates. With builder plates the term "recast" is a collecting specific term.

Suspect - Something that doesn’t pass the "laugh" test. Either a style or variation that experienced collectors don’t agree on. Basically this is an unconfirmed fake that you would do best to steer away from buying.

Over-run - This to me is a key specific term that refers to keys made at least by Adlake and Slaymaker with correct bits (match the Key Lock & Lantern diagrams) however the key forms match known 1960s style -- either ADLAKE or SLAYMAKER in a straight line with a finish that is not clean (filed, has mold seam lines, etc).

New Old Stock - any item that was ordered by an authentic railroad and was in their or the manufacturer's stores for later use. The item probably never saw actual use on the railroad. This is clearly not an over-run.

Misunderstood - OK here’s your over-run keys - they were offered at the Key Lock & Lantern Albany show in the 1980s for $2-3 a piece. These clearly had no original misrepresentation issues however they hit the market hard and there are literally thousands of them. They will even have names like NYC&HR RR. If they were made in the 1960s with name for the 1910s clearly there is an authenticity issue. These keys have correct bit patterns but they are not even New Old Stock. Daniel Webster may
disagree but I don’t put much salt in his switch key collecting expertise.

For key specific issues the Adlake over-run keys have the name in a straight line and have a pebble finish and not the earlier Hex or Football hallmarks. It’s disturbing to see what some people have paid for these. Same goes for the Slaymaker unused keys. They have a square hilt typical of Slaymaker keys. I don’t think the Slaymaker over-runs have the diamond around the hallmark. (Maybe someone can confirm this.) I remember them as always being the plain block lettering. - Scott Czaja

Why did Adlake or Slaymaker continue to make keys for, say, the NYC&HR RR (I've seen those listed on eBay) long after the name disappeared? Consider this: Some employees had pride in the heritage of the railroad that they worked for. Mergers wiped out the name of many railroads while the bits on the switch keys did not change with that name change. Whether they were shop marked or purchased directly from the manufacturer employees sought and used keys with the predecessor name stamped on them. I know this first hand from Missouri Pacific and Norfolk and Western employees who purchased and used MR&BT, MI and Wabash keys long after the names officially disappeared. I have no knowledge beyond this so I do not know how extensive this practice was. It is also possible that new orders just referenced previous orders and
those placing orders did not bother to request any name changes.

Overruns were made for anticipated future sales. Railroads made repeated orders from the manufacturers and keeping items in stock just reduced the ordering cycle time. It also reduced manufacturing cost by eliminating machine setup. -Bill Kajdzik

I offer my concurrence with Scott Czaja's comments. Anyone who buys a railroad switch key without pocket wear, unless he knows specifically where it came from, does so at his own peril. Yes, there are what I call "desk drawer" keys out there, but not as many as I see on eBay.

The market is full of Slaymaker overruns, recast keys and other questionable keys. They go back to the mid seventies. [The guy who sold Slaymaker overruns] never made any pretense that the keys he sold were anything but what they were. I think he bought "all" of them from the factory. I recall boxes of them at his home; many were not railroads.
He was part of the hobby, a dealer, and he knew the value of the keys he was
selling. They were advertised as Slaymaker overruns as I recall.

The practice of tumbling the new looking keys in a rock polisher, was initiated to fulfill the requirement Scott addressed, that the most valuable key had pocket wear. This is the first I have heard of Adlake overruns, but of course, why not? I think these would be later than the seventies; I believe we ordered keys from Adlake in the eighties. To wit, when the new S&G 104 locks were instituted, those keys in railroad stock, with the switch locks, found a proper home.

Switch keys and coins considered on the same basis for determining value, is indeed ludicrous. I like my artifacts clean and in good condition, but I also want them used. That is the connection to the railroad and the draw of the artifact, not the fact it has a railroad name on it. Let's talk about militaria or fireman related items if we need to compare (and someone who knows more about firearms than I may disagree). If I were to buy a civil war weapon or fireman piece, I want one that was used in the battle (war or fire) or at least was actually carried by a real soldier/fireman; like the uniform and badges or insignia. It is the personal connection that gives them intrinsic value - the pocket wear of the switch key (and there are degrees of pocket wear - how did we say it, "nicely pocket worn.")

So let those who really don't know, but thirst for the win at the auction spend their dollars on replicas, fakes or overrun keys. If those of us "old farts" in the hobby are careful we may still find a bargain or two though it's tough today. There is no point in trying to have one of every key today. Buy what you know or have a personal interest in; otherwise we as buyers are putting ourselves on the mercy of the unscrupulous. Regrettably some of you who may read this have spent thousands in the past couple years to own "railroad used" switch keys that really aren't. - Paul Larner

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Thanks to everyone for their comments!