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Saturday essay: Coal dust magic

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Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or

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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 9:14 p.m.

Much to the chagrin of the folks at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the proof now must be considered incontrovertible that coal dust has remarkable powers of preservative. Why else would the old man's HO-scale trains and rolling stock be in such pristine shape?

Two elder brothers from Ohio fetched the boxes of train stuff from Dad's last HO platform and brought them to baby brother in Pennsylvania two Sundays ago. They'd been stored in a high closet in a bedroom of the old Colerain homestead pretty much undisturbed for 45 years. The last run of the last platform — an L-shaped beast of three sections, each 4 feet by 4 feet that wrapped around the living room fireplace — was in 1968. It was replaced by a smaller N-scale cousin.

The boxes were covered in dust from the old stoker coal furnace. Inside, several dozen treasures were carefully wrapped in the finest paper towels of the era.

Fond memories abounded as the Santa Fe and Baltimore and Ohio diesel engines and passenger cars were unwrapped. We marveled at the sheer weight of the metal steam engines. Some of the freight cars looked as if they were factory-fresh. There was a surprise, too — a switcher engine that none of us could recall.

Other than rotten rubber-band drives on some of the engines, the collection remains in remarkable shape. And now, the real fun begins — some detective work to discern the origins of each piece and steps to make sure all are preserved for another 45 years.

Anybody know where I can buy some coal dust?

— Colin McNickle

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