Skip to content

Colfax Railroad Museum in top 5 of china collections

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — If you have not been to the Colfax Railroad Museum lately — or if you’ve never visited — you might want to consider going.

The Colfax Railroad Museum has an extensive collection of railroad china in a variety of patterns and colors.

In fact, the Colfax Railroad Museum’s china collection is one of the top five privately-owned and publicly-viewed railroad china collections in the United States, said Scott Kingzett, a tour guide at the railroad museum.

 This year, the Colfax Railroad Museum has expanded its hours of operation from May 1 through October 31 and is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In years past, when railroads regularly ran passenger trains, each railroad, and then each line on the railroad, would have its own unique set of china for railroad passengers to use.

More than 900 railroad china patterns were registered, and the Colfax Railroad Museum has at least one piece of 400 different patterns as well as a couple of full sets with only one or two pieces missing, Kingzett said.

New York Central, for example, had five different patterns.

“A particular company would have their ‘name trains,’ like the 400 around here. All the dining services for the big-name trains would have their own china service with their own pattern. The china was like a trademark for that particular train,” Kingzett explained.

Kingzett’s personal favorite is a fine set of Spode china used for the Northern Pacific business car.

“For all we know, royalty could have eaten off that. If there were visiting dignitaries, they rode in the business cars,” he said.

Each of the patterns at the Colfax Railroad Museum are different and beautiful in their own unique design — from the cobalt blue of the Baltimore and Ohio line depicting railroad scenes such as viaducts, bridges, and horse-drawn cars, to the lovely swans on the Milwaukee Road’s Traveler line, to the delicate pink wild roses of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, to the Amtrak china with a simple blue line running around the rim.

Fred Harvey

The Colfax Railroad Museum has FH china also — which stands for the Fred Harvey Company and the Harvey House line of restaurants and hotels along railroads in the western United States.

Fred Harvey was a traveling salesman who got tired of not being able to eat his meals while he was riding the trains, Kingzett said.

“He went to Santa Fe Railroad in Arizona, and said, ‘If you will give me a space in one of your depots, I will feed your people.’ That’s how Harvey Houses got started,” he said.

Before the Harvey Houses, people riding on trains quite often did not get to eat the meals they ordered when the trains stopped at various stations.

Harvey “set up restaurants to feed passengers. He worked a deal with the railroad that if they would let him know how many people were on board, his cooks and chefs prepared meals ahead of time so that when passengers got off the train, they could go straight to the restaurant and eat their meal,” Kingzett said.

“That way people could eat a decent meal at a great price. What the railroads did before that, the train would pull into the depot, people would go into the restaurant and order their food, and by the time the food was ready, the train was ready to go. So they never got to eat. They got charged for the meal, but they never had a chance to eat it. The restaurants were ripping off the passengers. Harvey fixed that,” he said.

Fred Harvey also developed what he called the Harvey Girls.

“He went out East and hired waitresses. He had standards. They had to be reasonably good looking and single. He would bring them to his restaurants. He put them up in a dorm. They had chaperones. And the ultimate outcome of that was they populated the West,” Kingzett said.

“A lot of the girls would come out, and it was a decent living as a waitress, but it was a lot better living if you were married to the biggest rancher in the neighborhood. It wasn’t shifty. It was just that they were the only women in town. A lot of them ended up married to the financially elite. It was one of those unintended consequences. And it was great for the country. And we have a couple of pieces of the Harvey china (at the Colfax Railroad Museum),” he said.

When asked how long it took to gather the collection at the museum, Kingzett noted that Herb Sakalaucks Jr., the owner of the Colfax Railroad Museum, has been collecting railroad memorabilia his whole life.

“One of our biggest sources nowadays is Goodwill. I had a lady visiting this morning, her father and grandfather both worked for the railroad. But when that generation passes on, the younger folk don’t know about it. Don’t know what it is. Thankfully a lot of it goes to Goodwill. If you know what you are looking for, you can find a lot of railroad items and a lot of other valuable items with some history to it,” Kingzett said.

Lanterns

The Colfax Railroad Museum also features more than 300 railroad lanterns.

“As far as we can tell, without doing another detailed inventory, there are no duplicates. There may be duplicates of the same model, but they were manufactured for specific railroads and were stamped as such. There might not be anything distinctive about the lamp itself, except that it was stamped for that particular railroad. The lanterns were personalized for the specific railroad,” Kingzett said.

Of all the lanterns at the museum, the lantern from the RLD&M Railroad is Kingzett’s personal favorite.

“It stands for Rice Lake, Dallas and Menomonie. The railroad never got to Menomonie. They started south of Rice Lake, went through Cameron, went through Dallas and ended up in Ridgeland. It was a branch line of the Soo Line. They called it the Blueberry Line,” he said.

“The businessmen along that route knew that the way to survive was to have a railroad come through. Soo Line said they could not afford to build a railroad, that there wasn’t enough money there. The businessmen thought there was enough money (to support a railroad). Soo Line said, ‘if you think there’s enough money there, you build it. And if there is enough money there, we’ll buy it.’ They built it, and the Soo Line bought it, and it ran for quite a few years. It was a branch. But it never got to Menomonie. There were already two railroads in Menomonie, so they didn’t think they needed a third one. They called it the Blueberry Line because there were blueberries growing in the area,” Kingzett said.

Colors

Railroad lanterns come with different colored chimneys.

“All of the lanterns, except for a couple, are not light sources, they’re not flashlights. They are signals, depending on how they were held and how they were moved, it meant something,” Kingzett said.

“The red lights are stop lights. Any time that a train approached a red light, they had to stop. Like a taillight or a stoplight. Yellow or amber was caution. You don’t have to stop, but proceed with caution. Green was go. The green lanterns were primarily used on big bridges and in tunnels. There would be a tender who lived in a little shack alongside the track. It was his job to make sure there was only one train at a time on that bridge or going through that tunnel. He would display a red lantern if a train could not go on or in, and a green would say, it’s clear, it’s yours. You can go in,” he explained.

“The blue light, the modern equivalent is lock-out, tag-out. If somebody is going to work on a piece of machinery, he goes over and turns it off, locks it and tags it, and he is the only person who can unlock it. Same thing with the blue light. It indicated there were people working on or under that piece of equipment, whether it was a car or a locomotive or whatever. The crew boss would hang a blue light. Sometimes they would hang a blue flag. The only guy who could take it off was him. That was a firing offense. If you moved that car, you were gone. They didn’t care who you were. The president of the railroad could not move that car with a blue light on it, unless he put it on. If you get run over by a train car, it hurts,” Kingzett said.

Some of the lanterns at the Colfax Railroad Museum are whale oil lanterns.

“Railroading in 1830 predated the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania. The railroads used whale oil for their lanterns and their lubrication. Thankfully for the whales, they found oil in Pennsylvania,” he said.

One new piece that came to the Colfax Railroad Museum last summer is Dr. Thomson’s Lantern for the Detection of Colorblindness for Railway and Marine Service.

“If you were green or red colorblind, and your signals are green or red, they didn’t want you out there. A railroad official would come along and test all of the workers,” Kingzett explained.

The Colfax Railroad Museum has two devices for detecting colorblindness. Dr. Thomson’s, the newer of the two, was designed to be powered by electricity.

Minnesota

Kingzett and the Sakalaucks family are in the process of going through a railroad collection in Minnesota that is part of an estate.

They are hoping to obtain a steam locomotive from the collection.

Among the items amassed by the collector were the original blueprints for the steam locomotive.

The locomotive was built in the early 1900s and was used in a mineral mining operation in Florida, Kingzett said.

The tube with the blueprints was in a pile of boxes in the living room, he said.

The Colfax Railroad Museum also has acquired 3,500 slides from the Minnesota collection along with many reels of eight-millimeter film shot in the 1950s and 1960s.

The slides and the film are a work in progress, and it will take some time to review all of it to find out what’s there, Kingzett said.

Rail cars

In addition to the depot building itself, the Colfax Railroad Museum features a number of train cars that you can tour.

A favorite among children is the little red caboose, Kingzett said.

“I love taking people through the caboose. That’s half the story of railroading, what took place in a caboose. The kids love it because they can climb up and sit in the cupola,” he said.

And then there’s the Fowler grain car.

“That’s the guy who designed it. Fowler. It’s a wooden car. The planks expand and contract with moisture. When it’s cool and wet, the planks expand and are tight. When it’s warm and dry, the planks contract, and there’s holes in the car. Holes in a grain car are not good, because pretty soon, you don’t have any grain left. Fowler said, ‘I can fix that.’ He built a screw jack rig that would squeeze the boards together. He put in the oblong bolt holes so that the bolts would slide with the expansion and contraction of the boards,” Kingzett said.

Eventually the grain car will be the railroad museum’s library. The museum recently received about a thousand books from Kingzett’s brother, who donated his private collection.

“He’s a railroad guy and a ship guy. He donated his private collection of ship books to the Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, and we got his railroad collection. We have 19 boxes of books to sort through. He is a model builder, and he used the books for reference. He is cutting back on his model building now,” Kingzett said.

And then there’s the passenger car that was once a private home in Hammond.

(Be sure to ask Kingzett to tell you the story of how it was found and moved to Colfax.)

The passenger car, built in 1911, features stained glass windows and oak paneling on the inside.

“It’s what’s called a first class heavyweight. There were 18 seats. It would seat 36 people in the car. They had their own car steward. The walls are quarter-sawn white oak and inlaid patterns. When it was taken out of service as a passenger car, it was put into service as a bunk car for a work train. Everything inside was painted gray — the oak and the stained glass, too. It took five years to restore the car,” Kingzett said.

Although the Colfax Railroad Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., tours can be arranged at other times to accommodate a family schedule or visitors from out of town.

Tours for larger groups can be arranged throughout the year.

To schedule a special tour of the Colfax Railroad Museum or to find out more information, call (715) 225-0688, or visit www.colfaxrrmuseum.org.