There is a long-standing saying with model trains that there is a prototype for everything. Well, there is also an exception to every rule. This week we take a fun break from reality to look at some freight cars that have been perennial favorites of train collectors despite their lack of authenticity. These cars have become so popular, they’ve been re-issued many times over, and even copied in other scales.
Lionel’s classic aquarium car has gone through many variations over the decades since its introduction in 1959. Railroads have been called upon to haul just about everything, and live fish are no exception. They didn’t travel in cars like this however.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, several states operated hatchery cars. These rail cars, which appeared much like wooden passenger coaches on the exterior, were fitted with large tanks for hatchlings as well as quarters for the crew. The cars traveled branch lines which ran along mountain streams and restocked the streams with trout yearlings annually. Improvements in roads and trucks rendered the cars obsolete long before the Lionel car was dreamt of.
Railroads have hauled other livestock as well. Small shipments were typically handled by the Railway Express Agency and carried aboard baggage cars. Animals would be supplied their own attendant if necessary. In an oral history, Pennsylvania Railroad engineman Forwood Smith recalled a terrified express agent joining him in the cab of their GG-1. When asked what was wrong, he reported that the lion had escaped. It was no joke. When the train arrived at Baltimore, police and animal handlers from the zoo were on hand to return the beast to its shipping carrier.
The aquarium car became the starting point for another stretch of the imagination. Since its 1961 debut, the Lionel Mint Car has been repurposed to haul many precious commodities from gold bars to smoke pellets. Although the design of the car itself is pure whimsy, railroads do have a history of hauling gold and other valuables. Often, these goods were carried aboard regular trains in express cars at the head end of the train.
Monies were not only transported by train, but sometimes distributed. Railroad pay cars were used to deliver payment to employees on track gangs and distant towns where the railroad was the only means of transportation and communications.
Added protection on these cars came in the form of iron window bars and sometimes steel plating in floors and walls. From the outside, cars were often designed to be as inconspicuous as possible. Armed guards did sometimes accompany larger shipments and by law, all railway postal employees carried a firearm. In addition, railroads normally contracted security details to private agencies like the Pinkertons to guard valuable shipments.
So maybe Lionel’s classic models aren’t as far from reality as it first seems. Fact or fancy, the truth remains that all of these cars are fun. We’ll look at some more examples of cars that weren’t in future blogs!