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How far can you travel for 15 cents?

By Michael G. Matejka | April 23, 2019

A boy gathers railroad information in the pre-Internet age

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Railroads like Illinois Terminal, Pennsy, and New York Central sent promotional material to author Matejka, and often returned his 15 cents postage as well.
How far can you travel for 15 cents? As a child in the early 1960s, I was traveling all over the country from my St. Louis home, thanks to 15 cents I kept sending and resending to railroad public relations departments, looking for “freebies.”

It started with a visit to the Museum of Transport in Kirkwood, Mo., where I picked up a free booklet, “The Railroads of St. Louis.” At the back was a list of the roads serving the city, with their corporate addresses. I don’t know if it was my idea or my dad’s, but I decided to send a letter to each railroad listed, enclosing 15 cents for return postage, asking for information.

Now, 15 cents was no small matter for a 9-year-old then. I did receive a weekly allowance of 25 cents, but I was also expected to deposit that quarter in Sunday’s collection plate. I accumulated the required sum slowly, by redeeming soda bottles, at 2 cents each, that I found in roadside ditches.

Hometown favorite Missouri Pacific was my first target. In careful child’s handwriting, I composed a letter, taped a dime and a nickel to a note card, and expectantly dropped it in the mailbox.

Soon a manila envelope arrived from the MoPac p.r. office, with eight cardstock photos of locomotives, four steam and four diesel. And my 15 cents was returned! I could write another railroad.

Gulf, Mobile & Ohio was next, which sent me a 1962 timetable, an EMD F3 builder’s card, and a large postcard of an Alco FA—plus my 15 cents.

Jackpot time came with the next two roads, Burlington Route and Baltimore & Ohio. A bulging envelope came from CB&Q headquarters in Chicago, containing booklets for the 
California ZephyrTwin Cities Zephyr, and Denver Zephyr; a guide to the road’s modern freight service; a brochure on school trips; and four passenger-train postcards. The B&O was equally generous, sending a poster of a Howard Fogg painting featuring Alco FA’s; brochures for Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and the B&O Museum; and a photo of F3’s on a passenger train at Harper’s Ferry.

Soon I’d covered the walls of my bedroom with railroad images. I pored over the various brochures, carefully repacking them into their original envelopes after each perusal.

My string was broken when the small Illinois Terminal kept my 15 cents, but sent me two venerable classics: a 1954 public timetable and a 1930s “Know Your Illinois” fold-out map.

I wasn’t ready to quit, though, so I scrounged up another 15 cents and wrote to the Pennsylvania. The giant road responded with three booklets, but it too kept my money.

My next target was the New York Central, which did return my 15 cents, along with a 1953 brochure featuring the 1830s 
DeWitt Clinton and a modern E unit on the cover.

That was my last exchange with a railroad p.r. department. What killed my project? ZIP codes. That wonderful booklet from the Museum of Transport was pre-ZIP code. What turned out to be my last note went to the Katy, and then bounced back, undelivered. Where could a kid find ZIP codes for corporate offices hundreds of miles away? My valued 15 cents ended its cross-country journeys. But I had a room decorated with railroad art, brochures and timetables to read, and a much greater understanding of the railroad world, thanks to my well-traveled Roosevelt and Jefferson.

First published in Fall 2011 Classic Trains magazine.

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6 thoughts on “How far can you travel for 15 cents?

  1. I did this in 1976, at the end of my junior year in high school. Stamps were $.24 by then, but all of the 9 railroads and the AAR that answered my 2-line letters requesting employment info, plus general info about their company, paid from $.24 to $1.12 (Southern) to send the info to me.
    All the material sent to me are still treasured items, even the simple letters from Chessie and N&W advising that employment prospects were limited due to the economic conditions during that time.
    On 4/28/19, I posted a thread featuring many of the items I received in the mail on a TRAINORDERS Forum called Nostalgia and History, under “Teenage RR job search; 1976. Membership is not necessary to view the thumbnail views.

  2. I have about 25 Alco prints of Howard Fogg’s work that arrived in two separate cardboard tubes about 1952 or 1953. Alco’s generosity was the biggest jackpot that I reaped through a similar letter-writing frenzy as a youngster asking for pictures of trains.

  3. Glad to know that am not the only one who did this back in the fifties. Since we were living in Alaska at the time, it cost $.25 instead of $.15, however, the result was the same. I still have the material received from Union Pacific (and yes – they returned the quarter).

  4. I did the same thing in the 50’s without sending any money. Mom picked up a paperback book called “1001 Things You Can Get Free” and it was full of railroad addresses. I hand wrote business letters. AAR had comic books and Quiz and Quiz Jr. UP sent photos including one of Big Boy which was still in use. C&O sent Chessie and Peake cat prints. There were others, but these are the ones that really stand out in my memory. The same thing was done with Lionel and American Flyer each fall. I still have all of it.

  5. I didn’t gather timetables by mail but did in person. During my senior year in high school in 1951 I worked after school at 99 Park Avenue and caught the #7 IRT subway at Grand Central Terminal. Many evenings I would stop by the GCT circular information desk, under the four faced clock, and request a system timetable for a railroad. At GCT they seemed to stock them all and I built up quite a collection which I still have. The people manning the information desk never gave me a hard time and provided the timetables without comment even though they must have suspected that I was most likely not contemplating a long distance train trip. The timetables gave me interesting reading material for the ride home and I also used one in college to prove to a professor that despite what he thought the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy was not a New England line connecting Burlington, Vermont and Quincy, Massachusetts.

  6. I started collecting railroad timetables in 1962, during my junior year at a public high school in a suburb of Philadelphia. That year I joined the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia, which rehearsed every Saturday morning during the school year at the big YMCA on Arch Street in Center City, close to City Hall. The Y had a rack of passenger timetables that I raided regularly. So did Reading Terminal and the Pennsy’s Suburban and Thirtieth Street Stations, which I often visited after orchestra practice, carrying my cello.

    About the same time I also wrote asking for material. The Delaware & Hudson, which my family rode for many years to and from summers camping on a state-owned island in New York’s Lake George, sent me, among other things, glossy photos of a Challenger and of 4036, which turned out to be its only passenger Alco RS-3 at the time. Union Pacific sent a lot of great stuff. The Association of American Railroads sent me a great map of the U.S. with railroad heralds in its margins.

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