Railroad Marbles
Sam Ferrara

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.

Update. A 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. We thank him for sending us this image. Additional Update: A website viewer emailed us in late 2010 to say that she found similar marbles in Oro Grande, California. Thanks to all.