The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad has lost its marbles! Glass agates can
be found along stretches of the Cumberland Branch of the B&O. Usually
they are found close to stations and/or freight houses. Condition of
these glass globules can vary from no marks at all, to some scratches
with cracks, to chipped or just glass pieces. The best place to look
for them is in the ballast between the ties and rail.
These marbles were first used between 1885 and 1890. As the story goes,
a railroad official wanted a marble that would carry five hundred pounds
of weight. He asked the Wheeling Glassworks to make him such an item
and the railroad would buy tons of them.
And so they did. The Wheeling Glassworks was able to produce a glass
agate that would support five hundred pounds of weight. The marble is
about three quarters of an inch in diameter, made of a greenish-clear
glass, has a few air bubbles visible and linear indentations on the surface
from either straw or forming. The latter in no way prohibits the sphere
from rolling freely since it is almost perfectly round.
Marbles were purchased by the tons and used in the freight houses and
depots. Two one inch lathes were laid as tracks parallel to one another
and the marbles were spread, filling the space between them. Freight
that required moving was pushed up onto the "roadbed of marbles" and
rolled along to its new location. Remember the planks in the flooring
of these depots and freight stations were of white pine three inches
thick and fourteen inches wide.
Larger size marbles can also be found. Agates of approximately two inches
in diameter can be found on another branch of this same railroad. These
marbles were used by the Pennsylvania Sand Company on the main line up
into Berkley. The larger marbles were put into the bottom of the sand
hoppers to help the flow of the sand when emptying.
Web Editor's Note This article
was first published in Key, Lock & Lantern,
Issue #87, Spring, 1988, pages 1681-1682. The marbles described here
should not be confused with the railroad "logo" marbles that
have recently been manufactured. The latter have railroad heralds or
logos in them and are fantasy items, never having been issued by a
railroad. The marbles described in this article are clear glass with
no fancy markings. Our sincere thanks to Sam Ferrara for permission
to reprint his article.
gentleman from California emailed us to say that these are not only
found in the East. The marbles shown at right were found outside Ludlow,
California along a RR right-of-way after a storm apparently washed
them into view.
A website viewer emailed us in late 2010 to say that she found similar marbles in Oro Grande, California.
Other website viewers emailed us in 2016 with the following:
"Reading through your article about railroad marbles and I thought I would add something. I too have been finding these not on the East Coast but rather in California since I was approximately 10 years old and even now today as I am 33 years old I continue to find these along the railroads in the Sacramento and folsom area in Northern California!!! I love strolling the tracks and picking them up as well as gathering insulators which have fallen off the hundred-year-old powerline poles which are rotting."
"I used to take walks along the CN rail tracks in the early 80s with my father and we would stumble upon these quite often. I must have collected about 50 or 60 of them. This was in Thornhill just North of the Toronto city limits in Canada."
Thanks to all!