Lake Michigan’s Hidden Gems: Railroad Marbles

By Tarah Nicole Hoffmann

railroad marbles great lakes

Lake Michigan’s vast historic past provides endless wonderment when venturing shoreside. I step down the bluff path as I feel a warm late spring breeze on my face. The smell of the seasons changing is in the air. I walk through the piles of pebbles up to a small sandy spot right at the water’s edge. I venture into the water, feel it trickle up my toes, and gaze up into the sky for a moment, appreciating all that surrounds me. Wait what’s that? I feel a little bump, a kind of tickle at my toes as a wave washes up. I peek down and what do I see? What is it?

railroad industrial marbles from lake michigan

It’s a large green peridot-colored glass orb. Kind of looks like a marble? Could it be? The color is spectacular and glows in the beautiful sunlight. It’s a bit wonky in shape and looks like it has a deep historic past. I scream aloud in excitement as I’ve never found anything like this in my life. I didn’t know things like this could wash up in a wave. Thanks to my mom, I’ve always loved exploring nature, and also loved searching for rocks and crystals. Never knew about treasures like these. 

In my squeals of joy a nearby beach explorer hears me and asks what I got so tickled about. I explain in sheer excitement as I show them. First, I hold it up to the sunlight so they can see its radiant and unique green color beam out. Next, I drop it in my hand so they can see the size and shape. They immediately get an overly excited look on their face and quickly pull a few similar ones out of their pocket; each one is a different uneven shape, and each has their own beautiful character to marvel at. They hand me a few others so I can feel their weight in my hand. As I hold them and twirl them around in amazement; they begin a quick excited tale as my mind wanders back through time.

industrial marbles for fiberglass

Step back in time with me; a little over a century to 1890. The United States is being built up and industry is booming. The Midwest and Great Lakes areas are in their heyday. Glorious buildings for booming business and updated houses are being built and technology is expanding. The railroads are striving to meet the evergrowing demands of the new society emerging. Rapid industrial growth, however, didn’t mean the best practices; and many items were often discarded into the lake itself or buried in bluffs nearby when they were deemed trash. 

They begin to explain: What you found there is special, it’s an “industrial marble.” A local nickname is a “railroad marble,” because they were often found near railroad tracks. Some may have been used for cleaning residue from railroad hopper or tanker cars, but most were used in fiberglass manufacturing and were made by the thousands. 

green railroad marble

They have specific attributes and are easy to spot: they are much larger than the average children’s play marble; they are usually the peridot green I found and a light green that is almost clear; most of these types of marbles still have visible marks from the production process; and these marbles are imperfect, often more of an irregular shape than perfectly round. 

When gazing at our Great Lakes’ vast waters, I often imagine a magical, generous mermaid who sees a kind act (like someone picking up plastic from the shore) and in turn brings an unexpected gift to be left behind by the waves. What did a mystical freshwater mermaid gift me? 

I peppered my fellow beachcomber with questions. Are these found often? Can you find other stuff like this? I explained that previously I had only gone rock hunting, and had a decent understanding of what types of rocks and fossils we could find in the Great Lakes region, but never thought of looking for glowing beach treasures like these. 

They explained that they lived nearby and would come to the shore a few times a day, life permitting, and see what “treasures” the waves would leave behind, often leaving with a couple marbles and much more. They told me that there used to be Victorian garbage dumps on both north and south sides of the beach we were currently standing on. This took me back to that vivid picture of being transported through time; the vast industrial history, busy rail tracks leading near the shores and harbors. These stories remind me about many other local historic events that occurred near us that also may have brought these now special treasures into the lake to somehow be washed ashore. I continued to walk down the shore feeling enticed and ignited with this newfound love of beach glass. 

Knowing the water’s powerful waves can turn something like a piece of rough glass once thought of as trash into a smooth beautiful jewel continues to ignite feelings of love, exploration, and adventure every time I’m blessed to be able to get out and explore and enjoy nature. Finding a treasure or two is a bonus, like getting sprinkles on a sundae! 

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2020 issue. 

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