On the Trail of the Train-Squashed Penny

Four pennies lying on a train track

In an age where one may receive instant communication on where distant acquaintances are eating lunch and realtime updates on the line at the grocery store, The Orbit thought it might be fun go back and explore a slow burn pastime that’s as old as coal-fueled locomotives and nearly-worthless coinage. That, of course, is the sport of creating train-squashed pennies.

I know, I know–a sport? It’s an activity that makes yogurt-making look like The X Games, but bear with me. Squashing a penny is going to involve some transportation to the track (we recommend a bicycle ride followed by a walk down the ties) and the non-physical cunning of more rugged and/or glamorous pseudo-sports like hunting or sailing or stock car racing.

Both one-cent coinage and interstate rail infrastructure exist all over the place, so this is definitely not a uniquely Pittsburgh thing. That said, our fair city is surrounded by train tracks and there are many easy access points to get to the rails. It literally costs pennies to participate and hopefully by now you’ve got ObamaCare in case you lose an arm. The world is your squashing ground!

Train-squashed penny found against gravel and a rail tie

Found! Squashed penny amongst the gravel along the rail tie off the track

I’d like to train squash a penny. How do I do that?

You put a penny on a train track, you come back later, you pick up the penny. What’s to know? Oh sure: it seems this simple. (It is almost this simple.) But there are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Safety. It goes without saying that if one encounters an oncoming train, get thee away from the track! Squashed pennies are great, but they’re not worth losing a life or limb over. There may be pennies in heaven, but there are no trains to squash them!

2. Choose your location wisely. Not all tracks are actually in use. There is no disappointment in life quite so devastating as returning a day or two later to find out that one’s pennies remain on the track still legal tender. It’s that kind of indignity that will send young penny-squashers screaming to video game consoles, vowing to conduct their transactions solely with charge cards when the they grow up. Don’t let this happen! Know the active tracks! Stake them out, if necessary! Often you can tell just by looking: tracks in use are smooth and shiny; unused ones will quickly develop a thin layer of rust.

3. Pay attention to the weather. Train tracks are not flat–they have a gentle arc, which leaves the coins suspended in unanchored balance. A heavy rain could easily dislodge the pennies before Norfolk-Southern has a chance to flatten them.

4. In for a penny, in for a pound. Pennies are cheap. Heck, they’re practically worthless–that’s why we squash them! Don’t just bring one, grab a handful! They don’t all pay off (see next item) so you should take the gardener’s approach: one for me, one for the bugs*.

5. Locating squashed pennies is no walk in the park. Sometimes you lay coins down just to come back later and find no trace of them. Were they absconded with? Lost in the weeds? Jettisoned from the rails? Who knows! The clever flattener will mark his or her starting point carefully and may still need to don deerstalker and pipe, spindly fingers stretched in concentration to locate the far-flung Abraham.

Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #1, day one

Where can I squash a penny?

A fine question! Obviously one needs to locate an active set of rails (see above), but where to do that? Here are some easy-access suggestions:

  • Riverfront Park, Millvale. Right as you enter the park from either 40th Street Bridge exit ramp or the town of Millvale you’re forced to cross two sets of tracks. This is where we squashed our pennies. [Only the set nearer to the river appear in use. The pair we placed on the other tracks were still there the next morning.]
  • Panther Hollow. Taking South Neville Street all the way to the bottom of Panther Hollow, you’ll cross tracks at the base of a bunch of CMU buildings. These still get plenty of daily use. Drop off a couple cents on your way to school or work and they’ll be squashed by the time Jeopardy starts.
  • Riverfront Park, South Side. The bicycle trail runs alongside the train tracks throughout the South Side, so there are ample opportunities to drop some coin, frolic, get a tattoo, binge drink, etc. and return to hunt for your treasure.
Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #2, day two

* In our experiment for this story the result was exactly as described: four pennies placed on the track, two flattened pennies found. We never located the other two.

2 thoughts on “On the Trail of the Train-Squashed Penny

  1. Hipstre says:

    I’m a little drunk now, and am tempted to go do this. I have a whole bunch of pre-zinc pennies. Nothing is quite as beautiful as the sound of train horns coming up through the valleys late at night in Pittsburgh. You can almost hear the sound bouncing off of every curve in the road.


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