Builders Plates

Builders plates are cast or stamped metal plates that are affixed to locomotives and other railroad equipment. According to Steuernagel (1988), "The 'builders plate' ... serves the same purpose as the birth certificate of humans. The plate tells the builders name, the sequential number of construction, usually the month and year of construction, and location of the builder. Some builders plates contain additional information such as the classification of the locomotive or specifications." When locomotives are retired and scrapped, builders plates are one of the few things that are sometimes salvaged from the locomotive frame, and these have become a special focus for many railroadiana collectors.

Some points about builders plates:

  • In the early days of steam locomotive construction, builders plates were mounted in various places on the locomotive; however after about 1880, they were usually mounted on the smokebox, at least in the U.S. and Canada. The smokebox is the front segment of the cylindrical profile of a steam locomotive. Plates were mounted roughly in line with the smokestack and were generally applied two per locomotive -- one on each side.
  • According to Steuernagel, "Five railroads -- B&O, KCS, New Haven, N&W, and PRR - for many years required that the builders plates also include the class of the locomotive on some or all of their locomotives, and that the builders plates be of a particular shape. ... The prime example of a road which required the builders plate to be of a specific shape and size and to include specific information in a specific format was the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1891, the PRR began using oval plates on locomotives constructed in their own shops. ... A few years later, the PRR required that all locomotives received from other locomotive builders be delivered with similar styled builders plates designed from drawings supplied by the PRR."
  • Many commercial companies have manufactured locomotives, so there are a variety of corresponding plates in different shapes and sizes. There were three major steam locomotive manufacturers in the United States -- Baldwin Locomotive Works, ALCO (American Locomotive Company), and Lima Locomotive Works, but these were preceded by a number of smaller companies, including Cooke, Pittsburgh, Dickson, Richmond, and others. In fact, ALCO was formed by a merger that eventually included ten former manufacturers ( See article on this). There were also specialty steam locomotive manufacturers such as Heisler, Willamette, Porter, Vulcan, and others. Electric locomotives were primarily represented by the Westinghouse and General Electric companies, which typically made locomotives in association with other manufacturers. Diesel locomotives have been made by the Electro Motive Division of General Motors (EMD), General Electric (GE), and in the early years, some the major steam locomotive builders, either individually or as merged companies, e.g., Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton. There have also been specialty diesel locomotive manufacturers such as Plymouth, and major rebuilders such as Morrison-Knudson.
  • In addition to the commercial manufacturers, a number of railroads constructed steam locomotives in their own shops, and these locomotives carried plates for those shops. Among the more famous railroad shops that built steam locomotives were the Juniata Shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Roanoke Shops of the Norfolk & Western Railway, and the Paducah Shops of the Illinois Central Railroad. In more modern times, some railroad shops became known for extensive remanufacturing of diesel locomotives.
  • Steam locomotive and very early diesel locomotive plates tended to be made of cast metal -- usually either iron or brass. Aluminum was used later with some diesel plates. Some first-generation diesel plates look very much like steam locomotive plates, mostly because the builders were former steam locomotive builders and retained their old practices. Later diesel locomotive manufacturers such as EMD and GE tended to use stamped, steel plates and continue this practice to the present.
  • Most builders plate collectors focus attention on locomotive plates, but there are other equipment plates that may be of interest such as trust or lease plates from rolling stock, builders plates from major railroad equipment such as steam derricks and plows, and plates from sub-components of locomotives such as superheaters. There were also many industrial machines and structures related to railroads that were adorned with builders plates -- such as logging equipment and bridges.
  • Many builders plates were not saved, especially in the early days of railroading, so all plates are considered rare (although to varying degrees) and priced accordingly. Most collectors focus on cast, steam-era plates, although diesel plates are picking up in popularity. Relatively recent steam-era plates can go for $400-$600 and up; early, pre-1900 plates can go for thousands.
  • Like other railroadiana fields, the builders plate category has been plagued by fakes and reproductions -- some that are out in the open and some that are more insidious. A whole series of resin reproductions has been made and are fairly easy to detect, at least in person. See page on this topic. The more insidious types are the cast metal reproductions which may be passed off as originals. See fakes.
  • Unlike some types of railroadiana, builders plates continue to be made and applied to new locomotives, so future collectibles are still being produced. However, it must be stated in the strongest terms possible that removing plates from existing equipment not only is unethical and illegal -- pure theft -- but it gives the hobby a bad name. The only legitimate focus for the collector is the plate that has been removed by owners from retired or salvaged equipment.

Closely allied with the builders plate is the number plate. On steam locomotives, this was a square or round plate, usually of cast metal, that indicated the assigned number of the locomotive and sometimes additional information like the builder. On most North American railroads, there was a single number plate per steam locomotive, although a few roads such as the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac used cast number plates on the sides of the cab. In the diesel era, cast number plates gave way to number boards, either with removable individual numerals or, later on, plastic inserts.

Following are some examples of builders plates and number plates, all shown with permission. Thanks to everyone who allowed us to use their photos!

Above left to right. A Baldwin Locomotive Works builders plate from a Union Pacific 2-10-2 steam locomotive; a Baldwin Locomotive Works plate, mounted on a plaque, from Western Maryland Railway steam locomotive #812; a Baldwin Locomotive Works number plate from steam locomotive #32 (previously thought to be from the East Broad Top Railroad, but we have been told that the highest EBT locomotove was #18); a beautiful and rare builders plate from the Rhode Island Locomotive Works, which eventually became part of ALCO.
Above left to right. A builders plate from the Richmond Works of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO); a Brooks Works -- also part of ALCO -- plate from a Union Pacific 2-10-2 steam locomotive; an ALCO plate from a Bessemer & Lake Erie 2-10-4 steam locomotive; a plate from an ALCO diesel switcher.
Above left to right. An assortment of builders plates from the Lima Locomotive Works; a plate from a "Shay" locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works; a diesel plate from the Lima-Hamilton Corporation; a plate from the H.K. Porter Company.
Above left to right. A builders plate and additional manufacturer's identification plate from a steam logging locomotive made by the Climax Manufacturing Company; a plate from a class Y5 articulated steam locomotive built by the Roanoke Shops of the Norfolk & Western Railway; a keystone nose plate from a Pennsylvania Railroad class G-5 steam locomotive; a rare wooden mold used to form the sand mold for casting a keystone nose plate for a PRR class T1steam locomotive.
Above left to right. A builders plate from a Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) class J1 steam locomotive built at the Altoona Works of the PRR; a display of various builders plates from PRR steam locomotives; builders plates from PRR GG1 and P-5 electric locomotives; two diesel locomotive builders plates from the Electro Motive Division of General Motors.
Above left to right. A brass number plate from Southern Railway Engine #880, a 2-8-0 Consolidation; a number plate from a berkshire (2-8-4) steam locomotive owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway; a builders plate for a Pullman Standard car; a trust plate from a railroad car.
Above left to right. Three views of a PRR J1 builder's plate believed to be authentic. Note the scale and rust on the front, sides and back. Photos courtesy of Pam W. The number plate in the fourth photo was found in the 1960's along a former railroad roadbed in New Jersey. An inquiry to Erie-Lackawanna resulted in a letter identifying it as a number plate from a narrow gauge locomotive used by a predecessor line. Thanks to BH for the photo.

Sources.

  • Moore, Tim and Muldowney, Ron. "Pre-Alco and Early Builders Plates" (1983). Key Lock & Lantern, pp. 1098-1106. See this article.
  • Muldowney, Ron and Moore, Tim. "The American Locomotive Company Builders Plates" (1991). Key, Lock & Lantern, pp 2020-2027. See this article.
  • Steuernagel, Elmer. "Railway Identification Plates". (1988). The Railroadiana Express, pp 24-30.