Published: December 30, 2019
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Dirk Soulis Auctions
LONE JACK, MO. – “The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road, Oh, the Rock Island Line is the road to ride,” sang American bluesman and folk musician Lead Belly in 1940, paying homage to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. It was the heyday of rail travel and transportation in America, before the inception of interstate highways, and the refrain of the song implores listeners to “Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line.”
Collectors did not need a ticket, however, to “ride the rails” at Soulis Auctions’ December 14 sale of the late Edward P. McHugh III’s railroadiana collection. On offer was a trove historically significant relics from the golden era of rail travel (1865 to 1960) amassed over a lifetime of involvement in the hobby. Consisting of rare and iconic railroadiana, historical locomotive hardware, mid-Twentieth Century transportation artifacts as well as 60 porcelain signs, the McHugh collection was led by a two-color porcelain enamel sign with bold graphics, full-length portrait of a railroad worker with oiler and a company logo resembling that of the B&O Railroad. Measuring 37½ by 16½ by 1 inches, the lot high-balled past its $3/5,000 estimate to pull in at $23,500, won by a bidder in the room.
“It was a great sale, with twists and turns along the way,” said Dirk Soulis. “It was obviously focused on railroadiana, but there was crossover on some lots, particularly the signs, and that was interesting to see. There was a good in-house crowd with participants coming from as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., and Colorado.” It was a catered affair, and Soulis said that the firm ordered enough food for 150 people.
McHugh’s collection was as sprawling as the network of rails across the nation it strove to document. There were locomotive bells and lights, lanterns, china and silver, railroad station clocks, gate and station signs and more.
Art Deco period items were plentiful in the sale. A stylish example was presented in a streamlined backlit aluminum railroad passenger car sign designed by Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972). The sign was commissioned by New York Central Railroad for its luxury train, the 20th Century Limited. Although the industrial designer was best known for smaller functional items, like fountain pens, cameras and appliances, his commissions included complete interiors and exteriors of trains for the New York Central Railroad and even 20,000-ton ocean liners. This 28-by-20-by 4½-inch sign, which sold above its $10/15,000 estimate at $19,000, was designed to light the tailend of the last observation care. It featured a slightly convex polished-aluminum frame with horizontal bars enclosing the message “20th Century Limited.” It was one of Soulis’ favorite lots, especially he pointed out because it ironically presaged a “future” that today seems charmingly dated.
Railroad “drumhead” or tail signs are “very rare and somewhat of a Holy Grail in collecting,” according to Soulis, who noted that the McHugh collection included “more authentic drumhead signs than have been offered in all other railroadiana auctions on record with LiveAuctioneers, combined.” Among the stars in this sale were a lighted, chrome-bezel Santa Fe Super Chief sign, 8 by 28 inches, with a striking Indian chief graphic that jumped its $2,5/4,000 estimate to sell for $18,000 and a reverse-painted 10½-by-29-by-26½-inch example for the Wabash Limited Kansas City-Omaha-Des Moines train that doubled its high estimate to earn $11,000. The sign’s reverse painted glass lens in five colors featured the logo and the slogan “Follow The Flag,” original glass, soldered brass bezel frame, tin housing can with cast iron hangers, working internal lighting.
Less designerly but no less important and rare – fetching $17,000 – was an intact grouping that included the builder’s plate, number board, aluminum oval logo and headlight from New York Central locomotive number 5449. The Builder’s Plate 68883 dated March 1938, with iron number board and numerals on wood mounted to aluminum bracket with a cast aluminum New York Central System logo oval further embossed NYC on the back side. The headlight’s housing was cast with various embossed lettering and the original glass was acid-etched with Pyle National conjoined PN company logo on the reflector and the original zinc tag was stamped with RR Record No C – 125 – CLH. New York Central number 5449 was for a time shrouded as a streamliner and saw service with New York Central’s 20th Century Limited passenger service.
In addition to the top enamel sign, a vibrant and eye-catching enameled-porcelain sign advertising Santa Fe Railroad’s Chicago to Los Angeles train “The Scout,” which operated from 1936 to 1948, was bid to $17,000. It depicts a rider on a galloping horse, with the distinctive Santa Fe logo in the background and measured 20¼ by 40½ inches.
There was also an enameled stainless steel locomotive badge sign with great colors in the etched design of a Native American chief, his streamlined-styled bonnet streaming from the circular Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Santa Fe logo in Art Deco style. Measuring 26¼ by 83½ inches, it fetched $10,000.
And lest one think that McHugh’s collection was pure railroadiana, he also sought out rare shipbuilder’s plates of a historical nature. The builder’s plate on a ship or locomotive equates with a machine’s soul for those men who feel a bond with their steam-powered partners. This was no less so for the builder’s plate from the SS President Warfield. Christened in 1927 and flagship of the Baltimore Steam Packet Co., the SS President Warfield plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay without fanfare for 20 years, even serving as the “honeymoon boat” of a Baltimore couple Hans and Frieda Marx, who came to love the boat as they took pleasure trips aboard it. History intervened in the 1940s when the Warfield was renamed the SS Exodus 1947 and transported displaced Jewish refugees during World War II.
After the war it was put on the dismantle list and Hans Marx rushed to the shipwrecker’s scrapyard and got permission to take a few souvenirs, including the builder’s plate. Soulis offered the bronze plate, together with period photos of the ship and passengers Hans and Frieda Marx, and the lot was bid to $6,000. Soulis said the lot was underbid by an American holocaust museum, ultimately going to a local bidder in the room.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, 816-697-3830 or www.soulisauctions.com.
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