Say Lionel stock cars today and most people with think of our NASCAR line. But of course railroads have their own long history with stock cars – live stock cars to be exact. Most people associate stock or cattle cars with the slat-sided boxcars that toted heads of cattle off to the packing houses across the midwest. Ironically, this classic image meant the demise of one of America’s greatest icons, the cowboy.
The growth of railroads and their stock cars enabled ranchers to move their cattle to market on a much faster and regular schedule. The great cattle drives were replaced by strings of stock cars pulled by iron horses. Cities like Chicago became hubs for meat-packing houses. Rails brought the cattle in, then carried the dressed beef out all across the nation in refrigerated cars.
Like reefers, there were a variety of stock cars for different commodities, and their loads required lots of special handling along the way. Single-deck cars were used for cattle. Double deck cars were more economical for swine and sheep. There were even special cars for carrying poultry which could be packed in even tighter. A cousin to these freight cars were special express cars used for hauling race horses. These looked more like baggage cars and often traveled on passenger trains.
Regardless of what was riding inside, railroads faced strict regulations on the handling of this cargo. Animals had to be given daily stops for rest, feed and water. This was not only for humane purposes, but to ensure that the cattle did not lose weight and value in transit. Many yards which did not serve cattle customers directly had stock pens nonetheless to provide a convenient intermediate rest stop.Single-level cars held larger stock. Railroads had to give all animals proper handling and opportunities to stretch their legs along the way.
While the cattle were being rested, their cars were cleaned. This, as you can imagine, was one of those dirty railroad jobs that is easily forgotten. Cars were swept clean, lye was spread on the floors and fresh hay tossed in. With classic railroad frugality, the animal waste from the cars and the holding pens was collected and sold to local farmers as fertilizer.
Stock cars could be found mixed in with general freight, but were often handled in special trains due to their tight schedules and special handling. It was not uncommon for stock and produce to be shipped together. When handled in general consists, the cars were often placed at the front of the train for faster handling at terminals. This position was also favored by the crews downwind in the caboose. Empty cars could be handled almost anywhere.
The growth of the trucking industry brought a dramatic decline in livestock loadings on the railroads. For all of the extra hassle involved and freight car fleets rapidly aging, the railroads didn’t put up much of a fight to keep the business. Some railroads converted old boxcars for stock car use, and a few large “pig palace” cars were delivered in the 1960s but the golden age of the cattle car had gone the way of the cowboys before it. A few operations continued into the 1980s, with cars often being handled on the head end of priority piggy-back trains. Today, the only animals moving by rail in the USA can be found on circus trains.
For anyone modeling these earlier times, stock cars can add a lot to your layout. You don’t need to model a farm or packing house to include an accessory like the cattle pens – just offload and reload the cows like the prototype at an intermediate stop! you can add some details to the scene with a water tower, feed house and of course a manure pile. Then put those cars at the front of your train and highball!