Freight Car Friday – Transcontinental Trains

9 05 2014

Tomorrow is National Train Day, and the 145th Anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Although none of the freight cars from those construction trains have survived, it’s a good day to take a look back at the rolling stock that helped make a reality out of the impossible.

Gov Stanford

While no freight cars from the Transcontinental Railroad construction survive, some locomotives do. Central Pacific No. 1, the Governor Stanford, is prominently and dramatically displayed as part of the story of the railroad at the California State Railroad Museum.

It is not surprising that none of the cars from the original construction survive. Like the tracks themselves, the freight cars required for the construction of the railroad were built hastily in the race to complete the project and secure the valuable payments that came with each passing mile. Indeed, very little equipment from this era has survived anywhere, but we can still piece together a good picture of what it was like.

The cars used in the construction project were primarily flatcars and gondolas for rails, ties and other large materials. Boxcars carried black powder and dynamite,  smaller building materials, tools and supplies for the men.

Early tank car

While tank cars as we know them were still a few years in the future, wooden vat cars similar to this were used to transport water to remote work sites.

Many of the most common cars on the rails today had not yet been invented. “Tank cars” were large wooden vats placed atop a flatcar. Instead of hoppers, ballast was carried in low-sided gondolas and unloaded by hand. (Of course many miles of track were put down without even the luxury of the stones as the competing companies raced for land.)

Built primarily of wood, the cars were short and light by today’s standards. This was both a matter of efficiency and due to the limited capacity of the tracks themselves. Truss rods provided additional strength and stability to the floors.

link and pin

The link and pin coupler was simple but deadly.

In a project where labor seemed to be as expendable as the freight cars themselves, the only “safety appliance” to speak of on the cars was the hand brake. Automatic couplers, air brakes and added grab irons and stirrups for the benefit of car men were still a few decades in the future.

The remarkable feats accomplished during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad seem only more outstanding when you examine the tools and conditions under which they were completed. Compared to the construction and innovation seen in modern rail cars, the equipment used on this project seems primitive at best. But the while the cars may be long gone and forgotten, the impact of their work will live on through the ages.

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