I was recently talking to a waitress at one of my favorite dining spots about coffee cups. The cups used in restaurants and on trains are different from your average cup. The china services used for those have to be heavier to be able to survive! Years ago I worked at Hibbard’s, a department store in downtown Colorado Springs, which is where I learned that fun fact. Years later, the info came in handy.
I was interested in the Colorado Midland railway, but had not even started thinking about writing a book about it when I learned more about china. I came across a book about South Park, Colo., featuring a picture of Eleven Mile Reservoir with the old grade of the Midland quite visibly sticking out of it. The photo was taken in the 1950s when the lake was really low. I watched for this to happen again, and it did — a bit — in the 1970s, so I went out to walk it. I had started to walk as much of the Midland as I could in the 1970s. As I walked along the tracks, my eye caught a a glint of white with the word “Midland” printed on it. Turns out, it was a piece of broken Midland dining car china. As I walked other sections I started finding more. I now have a couple shoe boxes of it, and I’ve learned quite a bit about the china.
Over the years, the railroad merely threw their trash off the train as they rolled along, including broken china. We found most of the china on one side of the track, figuring the door where it was thrown from was always on that side. I found the Midland used two patterns regularly. Other railroads did the same, as well as the Pullman company. You can still find pieces along the tracks. I learned about the different weights of china. Fine china was not used on trains because of the fragility. I often found some strange cups. Here and there were some, with the handles broken off, some obviously had no handles at all!
Cups however, have a different reason for being heavier. The coffee or tea stays hot longer in a thicker cup. Most restaurants use heavy china, and the pattern is often uniform. I enjoy some little diners because they have a variety of coffee mugs with various artwork and designs on them. On the railroads the crews, if they had a real cup, often had no handles. I have even seen old steam engines with a place on the hot boiler to warm mugs, as well as small pots. I found several broken mugs before I figured out the lack of handles. I have even seen pictures from World War II ships with sailors with cups without handles.
E.M. “Mel” McFarland is an artist, historian and railroad enthusiast. Mel is a Pikes Peak region native and has written a handful of books and guides highlighting the area’s rich history. With questions and ideas for his column, contact Mel at firstname.lastname@example.org.