May 14, 2013

Spink Smythe sale 316, May 22-23, 2013

The latest Spink Smythe “Collector’s Series” sale catalog is now available online at For a copy of the physical catalog, call 800-556-7826 or email The auction will take place in Spink’s New York offices May 22 and 23.

As with other sales in the “Collector’s Series,” a wide range of collectibles are being offered. All told, 1277 lots are being offered with the bulk of the sale represented by 542 lots of coins, particularly stunning gold coins. Paper money (380 lots) is also well represented. Especially important is a wonderful collection of U.S Nationals (215 lots.) If there is one particular highlight, it is the second part of an unbelievable collection of George Armstrong Custer paper (59 lots.)

Stocks and bonds involve 149 lots, of which 51 are directly railroad-related. Unlike recent Spink Smythe sales, this sale is light (9 lots) on multi-item lots which I think should be an overall good move for collectors.

It is hard for stocks and bonds to earn their way in normal sales heavily populated with more popular collectibles. In this case, though, Spink is offering several very scarce and rare items that I have either not seen or have not seen in a long while. As typical of Spink Smythe sales, about a third of the railroad lots represent items signed by celebrities such as Belmont, Blair, Fillmore, Gould, Harriman, Huntington, Mellon, John Rockefeller, William Rockefeller, Ryan, Sage and the Vanderbilts.

Two items of note are rail-related autographs, although not signed on certificates. One is an 1882 document representing 80 acres of land sold by the Central Pacific in Yuba County, California. The document is signed by Leland Stanford whose autograph is nearly unknown on stocks and bonds. In my opinion, Spink’s estimate on this item is fair and probably on the low side. (Why the president of the railroad, let alone two corporate trustees, would have signed a sales document for $120 worth of ordinary farm land near Smartville, California is unknown.)

There is a similar situation (restrained estimate) with an 1873 proxy form appointing a man named Niven to vote for directors of the Spuyten Duyvil & Port Morris Railroad Co. The item is a partially printed, generic form but is signed by Commodore Vanderbilt, William Henry Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. All three signatures are clear and bold and the document fully uncancelled. Considering the prices fetched by “C Van Derbilt” autographs in the past, the current estimate of only $1000 to $1500 seems very fair indeed.

I won’t enter information about any of the certificates into my database until after the sale. However, it looks to me like all of the non-autographed lots are either scarce or rare, non-typical items or items not previously recorded. The downside (for Spink) is that there are so few stocks and bonds that they may not attract much attention in the shadow of more popular coins and currency. The upside (for collectors) is that prices might end up being rather reserved. Decide for yourself, but make sure you look over the sale as soon as possible.

May 10, 2013

Purpose-built locomotive

This is a photo of the “Reuben Wells” taken as it was being hauled on a flat car to its permanent home at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.

The Reuben Wells was built in 1868 in the repair shops of the Jeffersonville Madison & Indianapolis Rail Road at Jeffersonville, Indiana. It was designed exclusively for a 1.3 mile piece of track at the west end of Madison, Indiana. The track was special because it climbed out of the Ohio River Valley on a 5.89% grade. The locomotive did not need to be fast. It just needed to be able to push freight and passengers up what is reported to be the steepest non-cog railroad in the United States. (The locomotive pushed cars up the hill because the couplers were too weak for pulling.)

The 33-ft long, 0-10-0 locomotive was named for the designer/engineer, Reuben Wells. It weighed 55 tons (49,900 kg) and construction cost $18,345. The day after the locomotive arrived for service on July 17, 1868, the Madison Courier reported its weight at 70 tons. Its hard to imagine that wood and water would have accounted for the 15 ton discrepancy.

The machine apparently worked from until about 1898. It was sent to Purdue University in 1905, but appeared in exhibitions at the Chicago’s World Fair (1933-1934) and the Chicago Railroad Fair (1948-1949.) Sometime afterward, it was moved to Pennsylvania Railroad yards in Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, it was rescued from rusting away by Tom Billings, head of the Children’s Museum advisory board, and returned to Indiana in 1968. It now resides on permanent display in Indianapolis.

This image shows the Reuben Wells on a Pennsylvania Railroad flat car. The image came from a post card and I removed the distracting background so you can see the shape of the locomotive more clearly. In this photo and in photos of the current display, the Reuben Wells carries a mushroom smokestack. Much older photos available in Madison ( show the locomotive in service with a large funnel (“balloon”) stack.

Having walked the railroad grade many, many times as a kid, I find it amazing that trains were able to run year round. You can see the grade on Google Earth at 38.749176 degrees N, 85.396786 degrees W. You can also find more information about the machine on Wikipedia at