You can’t always judge a freight car by its size. Because of the density of the load they carry, ore cars are very small for their capacity. Don’t let their small stature fool you, pound for pound, an ore jennie can haul as much as freight cars three times its size.
Iron ore and taconite are essential in steel making. Railroads involved in transporting the ore to the mill generally fell into one of two categories. Railroads in the ore-ranges of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin hauled ore from the mines to docks on the Great Lakes. The ore traveled by ship to mills along the southern lake shores. Here, ore could be unloaded directly to the mill, or picked up by train and moved again to mills further inland. Although railroads on both ends of the supply chain were common carriers and moved more than just iron ore, the traffic represented an overwhelming majority of the traffic on the mine-end of the run.
The operations of roads like the Duluth Missabe and Iron Range and Lake Superior and Ishpeming were heavy-tonage conveyor belts bringing trainloads of ore to the docks and carrying empties back to the pits. The Chicago Northwestern, Milwaukee Road and Soo Line also had burgeoning ore operations in the region in addition to their extensive general operations elsewhere. Multiple unit lash-ups of diesels, heavy consolidations and even giant articulated steam locomotives were common power on the heavy trains of ore.
On the delivery end, ore was often just one part of the heavy traffic surrounding the mills. Ore trains mixed in regularly with coal, general merchandise and passenger service. Roads like the Bessemer and Lake Erie, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie and Pennsylvania were all major ore haulers. Because these roads also served many other customers, it was not uncommon to use conventional equipment to move the heavy ore. Traditional hoppers were often used, being filled only partially to their coal-carrying capacity. Although this wasted a lot of efficiency on the ore hauling run, the cars could also be used to move coal, coke or stone, minimizing empty movements and improving overall efficiency. The Pennsylvania didn’t build its first dedicated ore cars until the 1960s which carried ore from both the Great Lakes and imported Venezuelan ore via Philadelphia.
Most ore cars were short – under 30 feet in length. Many cars had a single hopper door in the center to discharge their load. Others were solid-bottom gondolas unloaded by being inverted in a rotary dumper. Since taconite is slightly lighter than iron ore, some cars were modified with side extensions to increase payload. The cars could not be made any longer, since the ore docks were designed with their specific length in mind.
In most cases, ore trains were unit trains. That is, they were solid loaded or empty trains of ore cars without carrying additional freight. Since the cars also rarely wandered off of their dedicated routes, they tended to last in service for a long time – even after they no longer complied with interchange rules. Modeling an ore train on your layout is as easy as grabbing your best puller and lashing up as many of the short cars as it will pull! The size of the cars makes an ore train the perfect prototype for modelers who like the look of a long train without consuming too much track space.