Stolen White River Junction weathervane returns after 40 years

Judith Ehrlich, VTrans Historic Preservation Officer, talks about the recovered train weathervane which on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. The antique copper weathervane was stolen from the White River Junction train station 40 years ago. It is now being housed at the Vermont Agency of Transportation in Barre, Vt.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Judith Ehrlich, VTrans Historic Preservation Officer, talks about the recovered train weathervane which on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. The antique copper weathervane was stolen from the White River Junction train station 40 years ago. It is now being housed at the Vermont Agency of Transportation in Barre, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs – Jennifer Hauck

Stolen from the White River Junction train station in 1983, the antique copper weathervane measures 65 inches long. The circa 1910 model depicts a steam locomotive pulling a coal tender. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Stolen from the White River Junction train station in 1983, the antique copper weathervane measures 65 inches long. The circa 1910 model depicts a steam locomotive pulling a coal tender. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Stolen from the White River Junction train station in 1983, the antique copper weathervane measures 65 inches long. The circa 1910 model depicts a steam locomotive pulling a coal tender. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Stolen from the White River Junction train station in 1983, the antique copper weathervane measures 65 inches long. The circa 1910 model depicts a steam locomotive pulling a coal tender. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-14-2024 7:31 PM

Modified: 05-22-2024 12:32 PM


WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The theft was worthy of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery: In the dark, early morning hours on a calm November morning in 1983 a pair of agile thieves used ladders and ropes to ascend the rooftop of the train depot in White River Junction and steal its historic weathervane.

A railroad worker claimed to have spotted the thieves in the act and called police but by the time they arrived the thieves had disappeared — along with the 5.4-foot-long and 1.2-foot-high, circa-1910 gilded copper weathervane, depicting a steam locomotive pulling a coal tender.

Rumors and speculation swirled about the whereabouts of the object and who was behind the caper. “Railroad workers,” believed one, “a man from Bradford” another swore he was told by someone who knew, an “inside job” assured a third. For 40 years the Mystery of the Stolen Weathervane remained uncracked.

But on May 7, after more than two years of research, confirmation and mountains of paperwork the historic weathervane that was stolen and missing returned to Vermont under the protection of state officials. The return was made possible through the efforts of the renowned auction house Sotheby’s and the London-based Art Loss Register, which operates the world’s largest database of lost and stolen art.

“We always knew it would show up,” Byron Hathorn, the former owner of the White River Junction depot, said in an interview with the Valley News on Thursday. Hathorn shelled out $3,000 of his own money to have the replica of the original weathervane made which today crowns the station house.

“We always assumed it was in the house of a railroad collector or Americana collector because weathervanes are like their pride and joy,” he said.

At the time the weathervane was stolen on Nov. 3, 1983, the White River Junction depot was jointly owned by the Boston & Maine Railroad and the Central Vermont Railway. Hathorn purchased the building from the railroad companies in 1994 and then sold it to the state in 2013.

But the weathervane was made in the early 20th century and the depot in White River Junction was not built until 1937. That timeline leads Hathorn to believe it had been “repurposed by one of the railroads from elsewhere in the system.”

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After the weathervane was stolen, the late Hartford businessman Frank Gilman along with the town’s chamber of commerce and the Vermont Railroad Museum offered a $750 reward ($2,341 in today’s dollars) for information leading to its recovery. But even the chamber’s leader at the time acknowledged the effort was likely “wishful thinking” it would lead to a positive result (it didn’t).

Sotheby’s, which withdrew the weathervane from auction once it established it had been stolen, identifies it as having come from the estate of a collector of Americana named Martin Shack.

It is not known how Shack came to acquire the weathervane, although Hathorn said collectors who know they own stolen art do not list it for sale with a prestigious auction house because it will be easily identified as “hot.”

Judith Ehrlich, a historic preservation officer with Vermont Agency of Transportation, which now has custody of the weathervane, said Sotheby’s vets items consigned for auction through the Art Loss Register.

Photographs of the weathervane matched that of one contained in the register’s database, flagging a potential problem with the art piece’s provenance and further research by ALR concluded the match was a stolen item.

“It’s quite possible (the collector) bought it legitimately. It probably changed hands any number of times over 40 years,” Ehrlich theorized.

Once ALR contacted Sotheby’s the auction house pulled the weathervane from auction, Ehrlich said.

ALR reached out to the town of Hartford and, because the White River Junction train depot is now owned by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the town contacted VTrans as the legitimate owner of weathervane.

People who remember when the weathervane was stolen offer different theories as to who was behind the heist.

David Briggs, owner of the Hotel Coolidge, which used to do a fair amount of business renting rooms to railroad workers, believes it likely the thieves were railroad workers themselves, ascribing their motivation to the “railroad culture” where relations between workers and management were often tense.

Regardless, Hathorn said stealing the weathervane — whose shipping weight including the container was registered at more than 100 pounds — could not have been a solo act but required multiple accomplices.

“You would have needed one other person just to hold the ladder,” he said.

But Chris McKinley, a railroad enthusiast who lives in White River Junction and has extensively photographed train depots throughout the Northeast, said he was informed that the thief “lived in Bradford” and had been one of the scores who worked on renovating the depot in the early 1970s.

McKinley believes the motivation for the theft was pecuniary.

“There was a craze of stealing weathervanes at time and people were stealing them to make money,” McKinley said, noting that weathervanes atop train depots were very rare and for decorative purposes.

“Usually people took them off barns,” he said.

Indeed, less than a week after the train station weathervane was stolen there was another theft of a weathervane from a barn along Route 5 in Windsor.

Ehrlich, of VTrans, said it took about two years from the time the agency was contacted until the weathervane — which required two people to lift out of its shipping crate — arrived at the agency’s office in Barre, Vt., last week.

“There was a lot of back-and-forth and establishing ownership took some time,” she explained.

VTrans is now working with the state curator to determine a new permanent home for the weathervane, mindful of “the original context” and in a place where “it would be available to as many people who would like to see it.”

Some people believe that should be in White River Junction.

Hathorn said he would like to see the weathervane return home to the Hartford Historical Society.

“The Vermont History Museum in Barre is a really nice facility but it would get lost in the hallways there,” Hathorn said. “Having it in Hartford Village would be my preference.”

As to unraveling the mystery of who stole the weathervane, Hathorn said that knowledge has been lost in the wind.

“There were a lot of characters around here who are now long gone,” Hathorn said. “They were never going to say.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.