Though cars and planes reign supreme today, the United States was built on the strength of its railroads. The Transcontinental Railroad of the 1800s made commerce possible on a scale never seen before in the history of the world. Millions of dollars in freight crisscrossed our nation each year, making America one of the biggest, most powerful markets on the planet. Today, some of the most popular collectibles come from this era in the form of railroad stock certificates. Let’s take a deeper look at these amazing documents and the history they represent.
Railroad Stock Certificates Explained
Quite simply, a railroad stock certificate is a document issued to the owner of a share of stock in a railroad company. The certificate includes information such as the company’s name and address, the type of shares, and the number and price of shares owned.
Railroad stocks were the first form of public ownership, as they were the initial type of stock issued to the general public. The very first stock certificate was issued by Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in the 1850s. The railroad stocks that followed were traded on the New York Stock Exchange and were incredibly popular in the industry’s early days.
Original certificates were printed on very thin paper and were issued in denominations of $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. The most common design was a yellow-orange vignette of an engine puffing smoke against a black background. The railroad name was printed at the top and the certificate number was printed at the bottom.
Though the industry lost prominence thanks to the advent of automobiles and planes in the early and mid 20th century, the surviving railroad companies issued paper stocks until the 1960s. Today, paper stock certificates are a thing of the past. The Walt Disney Company issued one of the last paper stock certificates in 2013.
Railroad Stock Certificates Reflect An Important Era In American History
Railroads shaped the economic future of our burgeoning nation, as well as our political and geographic landscapes.
The railroad era began when Baltimore & Ohio Railroad incorporated in the 1850s, not long after the invention of the steam engine. Thanks to B&O’s success, many were eager to capitalize on this new industry and railroad companies quickly sprang up throughout the country. Needing capital to build their railroad lines, these companies sold stock to the public. People jumped at the opportunity to invest in the railroads as it was the first type of stock offered to the general public. It wasn’t long before railroad stock certificates were a common sight in American households.
Shortline railroad companies, or small lines that operated over a short distance, were the first to pop up across the country. The only memory of some of these long-forgotten lines like Rutland and Washington Railroad Company, which only existed from 1847-1865 and operated between Vermont and New York, are the railroad stock certificates they issued, some of which you can find in our store. Others included The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway as well as Columbus & Indianapolis Central Railway, plus many more.
The world would change forever in 1869, however, when the Transcontinental Railroad joined together the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines and created a single, uninterrupted railroad that spanned the entire United States. Not only did this make travel quicker and more affordable for people, but it made commerce possible on a vast scale. Mail-order catalogue companies like Montgomery Ward could ship their goods anywhere in the U.S., without the need for a storefront. Freight could be transported from New York City to San Francisco in one week flat. Consumer goods reached people in all corners of the country, no matter how rural—which made westward expansion into the opportunity-rich, but untested lands of California, Colorado, and Utah more tenable. Not to mention, the proliferation of railroads in the U.S., which maintained the most railroads by far, made millionaires out of magnates like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Leland Stanford.
Indeed, railroad stock certificates represent America’s journey from nascent republic to economic powerhouse and eventual political world leader.
Collecting Railroad Stock Certificates
Railroad stock certificates are one of the most popular collectibles on the market. Over the years, certificates from many important railroads became available to the public as museums and other institutions sold them off. Today, there is an extraordinary opportunity to collect a large variety of railroad stock certificates from big, well-known lines like the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, to the more obscure, long-forgotten shortlines that dotted our country. Whether you are a railroad enthusiast, history buff, or simply someone who enjoys their beautiful aesthetic, you can find many interesting vintage stock certificates in our store along with other great antique gifts for yourself and others.
What got you interested in railroad stock certificates? Please let us know in the comments!