I hear the train a-comin', it's rolling 'round the bend...
Every Saturday, the Free Press's My Stuff column asks a different Winnipegger a series of questions, the most burning being "If your house was on fire, heaven forbid, what's the one item you would try to take with you?"
Easy, peasey, says Brian Schuff.
"First I'd grab my mom and dad's photo albums. Then I'd go back in for my railroad stuff, even though I'd probably die, trying to salvage everything."
The Internet defines a railfan as a person who has a recreational interest in train travel. Most railfans are model train buffs. But some, like Schuff, also collect train ephemera -- that is, old tickets, system maps -- even club car menus.
Schuff, 48, specializes in train schedules. Although he admits his booklets aren't exactly page-turners (sample entry: "Portage la Prairie 13:15, Gladstone 14:07, Plumas 14:44), he has amassed "thousands," which he stores in clear, plastic totes.
Schuff looks at a visitor quizzically when he is asked if he has ever considered framing any of his more attractive pieces, like a schedule with a picture of the Canadian Pacific Railroad's grand Chateau Lake Louise on its cover.
"Sure, the picture's nice but if it was (framed) I wouldn't be able to thumb through it anymore. And that would drive me crazy."
Schuff picked up the hobby from his father. Paul Schuff grew up in St. James, near a CN depot situated on Portage Avenue. During the 1940s, Paul walked over to the station every chance he got to watch the engines pulling in and out of the yard. As Paul got older and began travelling by train, he started to save mementoes from his trips. Schuff inherited his father's keepsakes, after his dad died 10 years ago.
"Here's one of his used tickets," Schuff says, rifling through a container labelled "American Miscellaneous. "It's from the Winnipeg Limited, a Great Northern Railway train that used to travel from Winnipeg to St. Paul-Minneapolis seven days a week, in the 1940s and 1950s."
Know how some kids like to head to the mall? When Schuff was a teenager, his preferred haunt was the Via Rail station at 123 Main Street. At least once a month, Schuff would hop on a bus and head downtown, to see if a new schedule had been released yet. He became such a fixture that if a Via employee hadn't seen the youth in a while, he tucked a fresh schedule away for him, knowing Schuff would pop by for it sooner or later.
Nowadays, Schuff relies on flea markets and antique shops for vintage timetables, and friends and family for newer stuff. Every time somebody he knows goes anywhere by train he asks them to think of him if they pass a schedule kiosk. Last year, Schuff and his spouse visited an Amtrak station in Chicago. While Schuff was busy, stuffing as many schedules into his carry-on luggage as would fit, an Amtrak clerk approached him and said, "You're not from around here, are you?"
Pieces in Schuff's collection date back as far as 1890. His most valuable artifact is a letter signed by William Van Horne, who served as president of the CPR from 1889 to 1899.
"I don't have a computer, so it's hard for me to know the exact value of things," Schuff says, when he is asked about the worth of his treasure. "I've had friends say they saw such-and-such go for $50 on eBay and I've thought to myself, 'That's not bad 'cuz if it went for $50 and I've got 60 of 'em then yeah, I've got a sizable chunk of change, here."
Not that he's selling anytime soon. Schuff has already made provisions to donate his lot to a Canadian museum of his choosing, so it will be properly taken care of after he's gone.
"I feel obligated to save it from the dumpster," Schuff says. "Some people probably think, 'Oh, it's paper, it's worthless,' but to me, each item is a little piece of history."
A.B. Magary maintains the website for the National Association of Timetable Collectors (www.naotc.com), a 51-year-old organization dedicated to preserving historical records of travel service in North America.
"We have about 350 members who are proportionately represented in the U.S. and Canada because railways in both countries followed similar practices regarding timetable issuance," Magary says, when reached at home in Connecticut.
Magary says the majority of NAOTC members specialize in a particular region or rail system, which usually puts a limit on how large collections can get.
"Any collection with tens of thousands of items would include lots of worthless stuff," he says. "My own is under 5,000."
About $150,000 worth of timetables is auctioned off, every year, Magary says. The record price paid for one schedule is $2,250.
"There are usually two a year that go for over $1,000. The highest value Canadian timetable was an 1899 White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (schedule) that sold for $1,676 in 2002."
The NAOTC meets once a year. The next scheduled get-together is Sept. 19-22, in Cumberland, Md.
chugging in the free world
SIX months ago, Neil Young appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote a free concert he was giving in New York City's Central Park, in support of the Global Poverty Project. For the first two minutes of the interview, however, Letterman only wanted to discuss his and Young's mutual affection for model trains.
Young is a part-owner of model train manufacturer Lionel Trains. He told Letterman he got into model trains about 30 years ago because he found them "relaxing."
"I was shopping for Christmas presents and I found this huge Lionel thing for many thousands of dollars," Young said. "Being a rich hippie I bought it immediately."
Here is a list of other celebs who are railfans, including Rod Stewart, who once told a reporter, "I'd love to be on the cover of Railway Modeller; that would mean more to me than Rolling Stone."
-- Donald Sutherland
-- Patrick Stewart
-- Bruce Springsteen
-- Lionel Richie
-- Mandy Patinkin
-- David Hasselhoff
-- Roger Daltrey
-- Kevin Costner