Steam Locomotive Bronze Birth Certificates
By John B. Corns
Some companies called them “manufacturer’s plates” or “identification plates,” and at least one railroad called them “badges.” But the name used most often was/is “builder’s plate,” a heavy, cast metal sign that displayed important information (at the minimum, the builder’s name, a serial number and date of construction) that was affixed to each locomotive for a permanent identification of that particular engine. Detailed records of each locomotive’s construction (blueprints, measurements, specifications, types and location of appliances, etc.) were maintained by each of the builders, and railroads kept for their own reference the detailed records of old repairs and new modifications whenever locomotives needed maintenance. Usually, a builder’s plate was bolted onto both sides of a locomotive’s curved smokebox as the preferred method of keeping track of each loco’s identity, as each engine would need to be stripped “down to the bare boiler” of all piping, appliances, jacketing, wheels, cab, etc., during major rebuilds. Some builders attached their plates to the smokebox fronts or cylinder saddles.
Each early-day locomotive builder took pride in its products, and large, fancy builder’s plates were attached to the side frames between the locomotives’ driving wheels, as much for decoration as for identification. There was no mass-production in those days, so each builder’s plate began as a separate, hand-carved, wood pattern from which an individual sand mold was made for the pouring of molten metal—usually bronze—into its hollow cavity. As locomotive demand increased and production accelerated, sturdy, reusable wood patterns with removable and interchangeable serial numerals and dates replaced the time-consuming and somewhat fragile hand-carved patterns. But as locomotives became more utilitarian and less stylish, their builders’ plates shrank in size and became less ornate. Ah, American productivity and efficiency at their best!
During the late 1800s, locomotive manufacturers decreased in number and began employing builders’ plates of various geometric shapes to differentiate their companies, most using circles, rectangles, diamonds and ovals at one time or another. After 1904, the American Locomotive Company’s nine subsidiary U.S. companies began using standardized rectangles, Baldwin Locomotive Works had been using round plates since the 1870s, and in 1918 the Lima Locomotive Works began using diamonds. Porter, a builder of smaller industrial steamers, used a shield shape. And supplier Locomotive Firebox Company used distinctive heart-shaped plates decorated with a bas-relief image of their popular product, the Nicholson Thermic Syphon, “The Heart of the Locomotive.” A few railroads, notably the Pennsylvania, the Norfolk & Western, and the Baltimore & Ohio, constructed their own steamers and attached their own style of plates with class designations (e.g. K4s). Because of its durability and resistance to corrosion, bronze was the favored metal used to make most builder’s plates. However, for the locomotives rebuilt at his Detroit Toledo & Ironton shop in Flat Rock, Michigan, the ever-frugal Henry Ford reportedly used old freight car journal brasses to cast new builder’s plates, as evidenced by the gray babbit metal swirling through his rectangular builder’s plates of recycled brass. Ah, American cost-saving at its best!
During World War II, copper was needed for massive amounts of military electrical products, and copper’s cousins, bronze and brass, were essential for manufacture of more than 50 billion rifle and pistol shell casings. To prevent shortages of these red metals, beginning in 1942 all locomotive builder’s plates were made from more plentiful cast iron, and 500 million, one-cent U.S. pennies were minted in 1943 from steel, not copper. After the war, builder’s plate appearances were altered to reflect the addition of new diesel locomotives to the builders’ old product lines. In 1949, American builders ended 120 years of steam locomotive construction, and within a decade more efficient, modern diesels had vanquished tired, old steamers to scrap, with a lucky few enshrined in city parks and museums as monuments to the Age of Steam. During the 1950s-60s, builder’s plates from America’s foremost diesel loco manufacturer (EMD, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors) had been relegated to cheap-looking, stamped pieces of stainless steel in the shape of a hot dog on a bun. Ah, American asset-saving at its best!
As the old-time steamers were retired and scrapped, their builders’ plates became collectible antiques and were acquired by souvenir-seeking railfans through legitimate sales, donations, thefts and other forms of “liberation.” Unfortunately, some builders’ plates were scrapped along with their famous or significant steamers, such as all the plates from Alco’s last steam locomotives, seven Pittsburgh & Lake Erie 2-8-4s and all the unique diamond-shaped plates from their Lima-built tenders. Fortunately, the Baldwin and Lima plates from their last steamers are saved. During the 1950s and early 60s, locomotive scrapping reached its peak and a builders’ plate could be purchased for five bucks from the local scrap yard. With so many inexpensive steam locomotive builder’s plates readily available, there was little need for making reproduction or phony plates. But as plate supplies dropped and prices rose, so did the number of forgeries—hundreds of fake plates flood today’s market. Caveat emptor! Some of the surviving original builders’ plates are considered rarities, and today a few have fetched more than $13,000 each! Ah, supply and demand, American capitalism at its best!
Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum founder and builder, Jerry Jacobson, loved steam locomotive builder’s plates and had amassed a nice collection of the various styles from the numerous builders. Some of them are exhibited on a wall in the AoSRM gift shop, but these are for display, not for sale! In some instances, AoSRM has been able to acquire one (or both) of the original builders’ plates from several of its 23 steam locomotives, but is always searching other collections and auctions for those plates that are still missing from its other locos.
Recently, a sharp-eyed AoSRM volunteer spotted on eBay an unidentified builder’s plate that was long-missing from former Southern Wood Preserving 0-4-0T saddletank loco #3. No one knew that this mysterious plate was from a preserved AoSRM steamer because #3 had been constructed as a ready-to-run stock locomotive, and Alco records showed no name for the company that purchased the 0-4-0T, just the loco’s builder’s number and date of construction. This loco had been built during January 1926 by Alco’s Cooke Works in Paterson, New Jersey, and assigned Alco’s boiler serial number 66308. There was no immediate buyer and the loco sat unsold for two years until March 3, 1928, when purchased by the wood preserving company. However, by then Alco’s Cooke Works had been shut down and its locomotive production ended, so the old pedigree of this 0-4-0T was changed to that of Alco’s sole remaining plant still producing steam locomotives, its Schenectady Works. Two new builder’s plates were cast by Alco to reflect not only the substituted location of the old loco’s manufacture (Schenectady instead of Cooke), but also the date of sale which was two years newer than the loco’s actual date of construction. After all, nobody would want to purchase in 1928 a “brand-new” locomotive whose builder’s plates read “1926.” These data changes made perfect business sense, especially since the Schenectady Works was the sole survivor of Alco’s nine subsidiary plants, and would handle all future communications with the thousands of world-wide owners of Alco’s still-operating locomotives. Ah, American marketing at its best!
A note to all new collectors of old locomotive builders’ plates … If you feel that you must clean the front side of your dirty, greasy, soot-covered builder’s plate to make a pretty and shiny display, do so as little as possible. And never, NEVER sandblast the back side of any original builder’s plate. It is that century-old, baked-on dirt, grease, soot and crud that confirms your plate is authentic and an original artifact. So far, the plate fakers have not come up with a practical and realistic-appearing method of duplicating 100+ year’s-worth of on-the-boiler-aging to the back sides of builders’ plates, but they are working on it with various applications of acid and soot, and then heating their fake plates with propane torches. As they say, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, Baby!”