How Safe Are Your Goodies?

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R.D. #1, Box 149A,Ellwood City, PA 16117-9801

The Northwest Pennsylvania Steam Engine and Old Equipment Association, which has its shows at Portersville, Pennsylvania, was robbed in late January of 1991. Thieves cut the padlock off a steel storage building and helped themselves to 10 steam whistles and two model engines. A nearby club recently lost four magnetos off tractors in a similar way. We do not know if the thieves in our case brought pipe wrenches or used a couple that we have in the building, but nine of the whistles were taken off the boilers stored there. The tenth was lying under a bench. Fortunately, by some good luck, advertising, alert friends, and the grace of the Almighty, we have recovered seven of the whistles and the two models from an antique shop some eighty miles away on the other side of Pittsburgh. The fact that the whistles had some unique markings and qualities and we had good photos of them helped tremendously in identification. The largest whistle, which was among those recovered, was also a community heirloom, having been donated by U.S. Steel when they shut down the local plant in 1973. Many hundreds of people set their watches by it for 50 or more years. The point seems to be that not all folks you meet are honest, and some will go to great lengths for a dollar. When the public is attending your show, how many are 'casing the joint' for a private visit later? Let me assure you I don't believe in living my life as a recluse in fear and suspicion of all my fellow men, but this experience has made us think a bit differently. Obviously a location with a permanent resident and a good sized dog or two would be safer from such intrusion than our relatively remote grounds. Or, an electronic surveillance system could be installed. Some simpler measures we have thought of and had suggested to us are as follows:

1. Have some good close up photos of your equipment to show unique characteristics. Shots from several angles would help. You can hardly guess what goodie may take someone's eye. Our pictures were mostly from farther away, to get the whole engine and so a bit fuzzy and lacking in detail .

2. For anything that has serial numbers on it, write them down and put them in an envelope or file at home, away from the equipment. Legal identification is shaky if you can only say 'I recognize that whistle.' We know from experience here.

3. For things like whistles without serial numbers or even names in many cases, consider dismantling them and stamping your social security number, drivers license number (the police find this more convenient) or some code number, or letter that will be unlikely duplicated, on an area that doesn't show. Legal identification is much simpler with such numbers, and thieves can't remove what they don't find.

4. Have an eye to security when and wherever your equipment is stored. A determined thief or group of thieves will get in somehow if they have time to work, but there is no use writing them an invitation. Good hasps and shielded padlocks are obviously better than plain ones.

5. Be aggressive in your pursuit. If we had set back and let the police do all the work, we might not have our whistles back. The police are very busy and your goodies will not likely have the priority for them that they do for you. We wrote immediately to all surrounding clubs and put the information in several newspapers and a local magazine. We did not have lead time enough for the national circulation magazines but were preparing material. The newspaper articles and an editorial titled 'We hope these thieves are caught soon' were what helped us. The information that bore fruit came through a chance encounter of a local citizen with a railroad collector who had been in the antique shop and noted the bunch of whistles 'all brought in recently' and one especially big one, our local mill whistle.

6. Be aware that auctions, flea markets and unscrupulous antique dealers are often little more than 'fences' for stolen goods. Spread the word and keep your eyes open. If an item changes hands several times and loses its 'identity' it may come right back to you, so don't let your guard down too soon. A museum that specializes in stuff like ours had a steam model engine stolen some years back. It was behind a wire fence but someone had long arms. After changing hands about five or six times and after about a year, the current owner carried it in and tried to sell it back to the museum operator. The museum owner was so discouraged by this and similar problems he closed the place down.

We hope you are never bothered by such problems as these, but a few precautions may make it easier for you if it happens. Good steaming in 1991 and beyond!