This morning I received an interesting e-mail from University of Idaho historical archaeologist Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D. After reading a recent piece we ran on Robert Grey’s new antique steel jewelry line, Wegars wanted to clarify the true name and history of what I referred to as “numbered telegraph spikes.”
“’Numbered telegraph spikes’ are more accurately called ‘date nails,’” Wegars wrote. “Although they were sometimes hammered into railroad utility poles, their most common use was in railroad ties, mainly to show when a tie was treated with a preservative, or when a tie was laid.”
Following a link that Wegars provided to a date nail Web site (yup, that totally exists, as does the Texas Date Nail Collectors Association), I learned a good deal more about the history of these quirky little antiques. For example:
“When North American railroads began to use treated ties in large numbers at the end of the 1800s, it was not known which chemicals, treatment methods or woods were most economical. They needed some method of keeping track of the lives of ties, so like their European counterparts they decided to mark them.”
“By the 1920s nail use was the norm. It peaked in the early 1930s with over 100 different railroads using date nails in 1931. The depression, then World War II adversely affected nail use, and from 1950 to 1970 the number of railroads using date nails steadily declined so that for the past 30 years virtually no railroad has used them.”
Also, if you want to collect date nails yourself, in addition to eBay or subscribing to the e-mail newsletter “Nail Notes,” you can go sleuth them out yourself. But make sure you’re not trespassing and you get permission first:
“To pull nails, your best bet is to find an abandoned or little-used railroad going through a wooded area. Walk the bed and check for discarded ties and ties reused as fence posts. In some locations it is handy to drag a powerful magnet through the cinders or to use a metal detector to find these elusive steel gems.”
Thanks, Priscilla. I love a good history lesson. Now, I’m off to comb some abandoned railroad tracks for these elusive date nails.