When Derrick Daniels was just eight years old he ran excitedly out the door to play in the puddles after one of Waynesville’s many infamous downpours. That’s when he said he first started finding the small glass spheres – later recognized to be possibly a century old –mysteriously buried in his yard.
“It rained real bad and a lot of water down at the end of my road washed it out really bad,” he said. “So when it quit raining, I went to go play in the water when I was a kid and I just found one marble laying there and I looked and dug a little bit and found a little cluster of them.”
And so the investigation started for Daniels, who said local theories over the years have ranged from oversized playing marbles to specialized musket balls. But none of that ever quite fit.
Over a decade later, he still finds them and finally knows what they are thanks to some local help, but the story of just how so many of them turned up on his land remains a mystery.
With help from Stephanie Watkins and Susan Keene of the Mumford Library and in Waynesville, Daniels, now 19 years old, discovered that the almost indestructible clear orbs were likely what has been nicknamed “railroad marbles” which were first used by railroads over 120 years ago to transport cargo.
Around the nation the marbles have become somewhat of a lucky find along railroad tracks – leftovers from a bygone era and good luck charms to those who find them.
According to information from Railroadiana.org, a railroad collector information website, the marbles were first used between 1885 and 1890 when a railroad official requested that Wheeling Glassworks was asked by a railroad official to create a glass agate that would support five hundred pounds of weight as a sort of conveyor belt in freight houses and depots.
The load bearing capacity might explain why Daniels has never able to break one whether with a hammer or when practicing sling-shot marksmanship when he was growing up.
That said, the ones he has found have varied in condition from unmarked to chipped with only a few actually in pieces.
A quick internet search reveals that people from coast to coast find them in certain areas and begin the same investigation Daniels has been on for years.
But national conversations about the interesting find also reveal something else – it’s considered rare to find more than a few at a time – and none have been reported in the southeast.
That would come as a surprise to Daniels who said from the very first time he found them, they were in large buried piles of 20 to 30. Stranger still is the fact that he lives nowhere near the railroad track where the marbles would usually be found.
Keene also said that she had no recollection of any rail spur or other connection at that location and that it would have had to be extremely long to reach Daniels’s property.
To this day, Daniels still finds the marbles in the same manner that he found his first batch – by searching after a good rain.
Overall, he estimated that he’s found more than 130 of the objects over the years and he use to collect them to the point of filling a five gallon jug with them. But he said he recently had to start his collection over when he suffered a collector’s tragedy when someone threw them out.
But all hasn’t been lost. As recently as a couple of months ago, he has unearthed 30 more of the railroad novelties in the yard and started the collection anew.
Meanwhile, Daniels’s discovery will soon be immortalized in a display at the Mumford Library so that regardless of home many are left, the young man’s decade-long discovery will live on for future generations to investigate.