Stamp Stories: Trains

Daylight train stamp depicting a locomotive pulling train cars through countryside

Take a ride through rail history with the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of American History. Educators share museum objects and a children’s book that offer a look at some fascinating facts about trains, railroads, and postal history.

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Carrie: And I’m Carrie from the National Museum of American History.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. Stamps are put onto mail to show the sender has paid the right amount to get the mail delivered. New stamps come out every year on a wide variety of topics. Carrie, do you want to tell us about our topic today?

Carrie:  Thanks Maureen! I’m so happy to be here today to talk with you all about one of my favorite things – trains – and to read a story about some of the trains that can be found at the museum where I work – The National Museum of American History.

Before we get to our story, let’s talk a little bit about trains – what they are and what they do.

Trains are a type of transportation, that means they help us move people or things from one place to another place.

Something special about trains is that they travel along rails and tracks. Cars and trucks travel on roads, boats travel on water, planes travel through the air, and trains use rails to guide them along tracks that take them where they need to go.

People have used trains for a long time and they are still used today to take people and things all over the place. Here are some of the trains and parts of trains that can be found at the National Museum of American History.

This is the John Bull Steam Locomotive. A locomotive is the very front part of a train that gives it power and this locomotive is called a steam locomotive because it’s powered by, you guessed it, steam!

This is a rail car from the elevated train system in Chicago. The elevated train system is kind of like a metro or subway system but, instead of the trains traveling underground, they travel on elevated tracks high up in the air.

This is a steam locomotive from the Southern Railway 1401 line that took people between South Carolina and North Carolina when it was running. The old locomotive is retired now and lives at the museum.

Now that we have learned a little bit about trains and looked closely at some examples, let’s listen to our story for today, Owl and Officer Smitty and the Case of the Missing Train. Use your careful looking eyes to see if you can spy any of the trains that we just talked about in the story.

This is Owl, she lives in Wonder Place.

Wonder Place is an exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

Owls sleep during the day so Owl is always awake at night when the museum is closed.

This is Owl's friend Officer Smitty.

Officer Smitty is the night guard at the museum.

That means he keeps the museum safe at night.

Owl and Officer Smitty love exploring the museum together.

One of their favorite things to do is to look for lost things.

The museum is a big place and sometimes people lose the things that they bring in with them.

I found an umbrella.

I found a scarf.

I found a pair of sunglasses.

Look! I found a shoe.

One night Officer Smitty brings Owl a note.

It says, Dear Museum, I lost my favorite toy train.

I saw a big train in one of the exhibits.

It was standing there all alone and I thought it might be lonely.

I left my train there to keep it company.

When it was time to go home, I tried to find the big train but I couldn't remember which exhibit the train was in.

Can you help me find my toy train?

Sincerely, Harper.

Oh no, losing a favorite toy can make you feel sad.

We have to help Harper.

Where can we find a big train in this big museum? asks Officer Smitty.

Owl and Officer Smitty think very hard.

Suddenly Owl remembers seeing a big train while she was exploring the other night, it is nearby.

She and Officer Smitty race to the train.

Look! Here is a big train.

Do you see Harper's toy anywhere? asks Owl.

Owl and Officer Smitty look high and low but they can't find the toy train.

The toy train isn't here.

I wonder where it could be?

Are there any other big trains in the museum? asks Officer Smitty.

Now that you mention it, there is another big train.

It is my favorite train because you can climb inside and pretend to go for a ride.

I know the way! Follow me, says Owl.

Owl and Officer Smitty go through an exhibit all about different kinds of transportation.

They pass cars and trucks and motorcycles before stopping in front of a big green and white rail car.

Great thinking, Owl.

Maybe this is where Harper left her toy train.

Let's look, says Officer Smitty.

Owl and Officer Smitty look high and low but the toy train is nowhere to be found.

Officer Smitty, I don't know if we will ever find the right train.

We have looked everywhere I can think of and we still haven't found Harper's toy train.

What if we can't find it? asks Owl.

It's okay to be upset, Owl.

Sometimes searching for something that's lost is hard. It can take a long time, says Officer Smitty.

You know this museum like the back of your wing and I've worked here so long I know every exhibit.

Let's see if we can think of one more big train together.

Owl and Officer Smitty think and think.

They think about every train they have ever seen.

They think so long that they almost miss the tiny streaks of sunlight that are starting to peek through the windows.

All of a sudden, they both remember the biggest train of them all.

Without a moment to spare, they hurry to the very back of the transportation exhibit.

This has to be the right one.

This steam locomotive is the largest train in the whole museum, says Officer Smitty.

And it's my favorite color, emerald green, says Owl.

There at the base of the front wheel sits Harper's toy train.

We found it!

Owl and Officer Smitty share a quick high five before Owl hurries back to Wonder Place.

She is tired from all this searching and the sun is almost up.

Officer Smitty will keep the toy train safe until Harper can come and get it.

The next morning Harper and her grandfather come to the museum and head straight to Wonder Place to ask if anyone has found the toy train.

Officer Smitty is waiting for them and hands Harper her train with a smile.

Then Officer Smitty heads home and Owls smiles and nestles in for a good day's sleep.

They both need some rest before another night's adventure.

Maureen: Thanks so much for sharing your book with us, Carrie! It was great to see those museums trains as part of your story. Now let’s take a look at some trains on stamps.

The John Bull engine that was in Carrie’s book is so famous that it has its own stamp! The John Bull was built in 1831 – close to 200 years ago - and it is the oldest complete train engine preserved in the United States.

The team at the American History Museum has taken such good care of the John Bull over the years that they were able to take it out on a short anniversary run in 1981 – when it was 150 years old! Here you can see the team from the museum who made that exciting event happen, posing with the train after the run.

The Postal Service has issued lots of stamps of steam engines, similar to the bright green one we saw in Carrie’s book. Here we have a stamp of a famous bright red passenger train that was pulled by a steam engine. This train was named “Daylight” and was called the most beautiful train in the world when it was running. In the 1930s and 40s it chugged along the Pacific Ocean beaches in between Los Angeles and San Francisco in California. Those who saw it and rode it marveled at its beauty on both the outside and the luxurious inside.

The smallest train in Carrie’s book was a toy train – and there are stamps of those, too! This one shows an antique toy train, but trains are so popular in modern culture that you can find and collect all kinds of toy trains today.

The Postal Service has actually issued several stamps showing antique toy trains and one with an electric toy train too.

Some train stamps are about the Postal Service itself. Although today most mail moves by road or air vehicles, the railway played a huge role in the history of mail delivery. For over 140 years, the Railway Mail Service used trains to move mail across the country.

For much of that time, trains operated as post offices too. Mail could be delivered directly to Railway Post Office train cars, and the cars were designed for mail to be sorted while on its way to its next destination.

Important events in US railroad history have also been shown on stamps. This stamp commemorates the 1827 charter of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, one of the oldest railroads in the United States.  Look closely – can you see three different stages of rail development in the artwork? Are you wondering why there’s a horse there? The earliest railcars were pulled by horses instead of locomotives!

One of the biggest events in railroad history was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The Transcontinental Railroad was almost 2,000 miles long and linked the east and the west coasts of the United States together by rail for the first time. This stamp was issued on the 75th anniversary of the railroad’s completion. It shows the ceremony at the spot in Utah where the railroads from the two sides of the country were joined. Famously, a golden spike was used to officially finish the construction.

This momentous occasion was commemorated again by the Postal Service in 2019, for the 150th anniversary. This set of stamps shows the two locomotives that pulled trains with officials and guests to Utah. The Jupiter came from the west and the Number 119 came from the east. And the Golden Spike got its own stamp!

There are so many wonderful train stamps that it was really hard to choose which ones to highlight. Our final stamp celebrates the friendship between the United States and Canada, our neighbor to the north. The train is traveling over the Niagara Railway suspension bridge that connects the two countries. And that’s a big part of why trains are still so important today – they help connect people to each other all over the country and the world.

Carrie: Isn’t it great how books, stamps, and objects can teach us something about trains? If you’re interested in learning more about trains or American history, you can visit the National Museum of American History's website or YouTube page for more fun train-related content and resources.

Maureen: Thank you so much, Carrie, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about train stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website, and you can also learn about stamps on a wide variety of topics there. We encourage you to just keep exploring!

For further exploration on this topic, check out these related resources from the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of American History.