J.F. was hiking one crisp January day during the pandemic up by Lake Arrowhead, near some defunct train tracks, and found this plate of steel.
He lugged it in his backpack the four miles home. What is it? It is marked “Nov. 27 Colorado,” and under the Colorado, he sees a capital H.
At first, I researched the early Colorado railway system, and this sent me on a quest. Perhaps the date Nov. 27 was significant to the early railway? I learned that the first train came to the Colorado Gold Mine the Argo on exactly that date, Nov. 27, 1879. So perhaps this plate celebrated that event? Perhaps the rail line memorialized this event forever on their railway parts?
No, the mine closed in 1943 when the huge four-mile long tunnel flooded. Founded by the 1848’ers and 1849’ers, it is a tourist spot today in Idaho Springs, Colo. When I sent photos, the museum had not seen such a plate in relationship to their mine.
Then how did it get to California?
Perhaps the plate belonged to the Colorado and Southern Railway Company, operational 1898-1981. This line serviced Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas, using a standard gauge track of 4 feet by 8.5 inches.
The piece of metal J.F. found looked as though it might have been able to support such a track.
However, J.F. found it in California, where this line didn’t run until Burlington Northern took over the line in 1981. And this piece of steel looked older than 1981.
In my job, there are many ways to research an object: historical, purpose, aesthetics, type — to mention a few.
And I was exhausting my leads.
So what was this metal used for?
This is a double-shoulder tie plate, often called a base plate or sole plate, used between the steel rail and railway wooden sleeper.
You will note it has four holes that housed spikes. The two shoulders are for added support for the rails.
As I am no engineer, I can only repeat what I learned about the physics of the plate. It improves the stability and reduces the twisting and torsion of the rails. Therefore, each plate is made for the corresponding gauge of the rails.
This one appears to be made for a standard gauge rail, although there were narrow gauge rails in California.
What fascinated me is that in the early days of rail construction, no tie plate was used. The rails rested on the wooden sleepers and were supported by stone and gravel. Not until the 20th century did we see the use of such tie plates that had to be either casted, rolled or forged.
I know it is not “modern,” as today most rail construction is on concrete not wooden sleepers.
So, what does the “Colorado” refer to, if not the train line?
I learned it is more than likely the steel mill from whence it came, and the date was more than likely the date of production as quality control. If a reader knows otherwise, please let me know.
Are there collectors? And how much will they pay?
There are collectors for anything related to railways. And there are men who love to study rail lines and make miniature train models. In fact, I found a gorgeous recreation of the Argo Gold Mine narrow gauge system made by a model train enthusiast.
And here we get into some politically dangerous waters. Gold mining, as the Smithsonian Magazine says, is one of the dirtiest mining endeavors known to civilization because of the massive energy mining involves, and the subsequent waste and pollution. In fact, since I have received a gold ring for Valentine’s day, the magazine cautions that buyers of gold should only buy second-hand gold (which my ring actually is, of course). But I learned that the history of gold and the history of the railway is inextricably joined.
J.F., I see these older tie plates are advertised as selling or $60 or so, and I see that collectors like to mount them on plaques with details posted in brass nameplates. I also see that yours would be more valuable if you had found the four spikes it originally housed. But you could research further and dig into the history of a steel foundry named Colorado and see if that date was significant to that foundry. That would be the best lead.
And congratulations for finding the simple pleasure of observing the “small” stuff during this trying time.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.