Nelson Gunderson arrived on the shores of what would become the state of Washington with literally nothing but the clothes on his back after his ship wrecked off the coast. It is ironic that the company which would later bear the Gunderson name would become such a powerful player in, of all things, transportation.
The company that grew into a leader in railcar production, among other things, started with Nelson’s sons Al and Chet. The brothers’ first business ventures surrounded wheels, rims, and automotive parts. In 1936, they began building trailers for the logging industry. In 1941, they built their first ship – a tug boat for a ferry on the Columbia River.
During WWII, Gunderson built a variety of supplies and parts for the Navy. Their first payment for building landing craft at a newly constructed plant arrived just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to contracts, the war also brought challenges in obtaining materials and labor. Gunderson began welding schools to train the workforce it needed during the war – a practice that was retained and even expanded in peacetime.
Following the war, maritime production continued at the heart of Gunderson’s business. A substantial truck construction, sales and maintenance division remained as well. The company also ventured into water and fuel tanks, dry docks, leaves and canal gates, and structural steel. There were many experiments, failed attempts and missed opportunities along the way, but Gunderson always found success when they needed it and never failed to stop looking for the next opportunity.
Gunderson’s big break in the railroad industry came with an order for 150 steel underframes for the Southern Pacific in the 1950s. The company quickly realized that these “small” projects (compared to shipping barges, tug boats and tankers at least) were profitable and fast – meaning lots of repeat business. The SP liked the product they were getting and continued to up the order – by the end the project had grown to more than 2000 frames.
In 1960, Gunderson went from supplying underframes to building the entire car with an order of 200 drop-bottom gondolas for the Union Pacific. The drop-bottom gon is not an easy car to build and when the newcomer to the industry pulled it off, the railroads took notice. Soon Gunderson was expanding their car shops and taking in orders.
The Gunderson’s brothers left the company in the 1960s, with the corporation itself sold to FMC. But the name was changed to the Marine and Rail Equipment Division (MRED) but its reputation for quality continued. Car production expanded through the 1960s and 1970s. The company was an early proponent of welded car construction. It also capitalized greatly on the boxcar boom of the 1970s. FMC production peaked 6.027 freight cars in 1979.
In 1980 however, the bottom dropped out of the boxcar market. In 1982, the company built a total of just 25 railcars. Rather than throw in the towel, FMC simply continued its tradition of looking for the next big thing. It found it in the intermodal market.
FMC introduced an innovative new intermodal car in partnership with the Santa Fe. Itel later bought the rights to the car and more than 700 more were built for them. These new cars featured 10 articulated platforms, each of which was little more than a frame and a pad for a trailer’s tires. The lightweight car reduced weight and the articulated joints reduced the amount of coupler slack in the train.
In 1984, FMC partnered with Greenbrier to design and build a new double stack well car. As all of this was taking shape, FMC sold off the division. Greenbrier would be the primary shareholder. The Gunderson name was formally returned the company after the transaction with permission from the family. At first there was strong resistance from the railroads to the new double stack cars. Concerns over a high center of gravity and the requirement of higher clearances created real operating challenges for the railroads. With pressure from the container shipping companies however, the railroads began buying the cars. One look at the railroad scene today is all the proof you need of their success.
In addition to intermodal equipment, Gunderson was an early builder of new center partition flat cars or “center beams” for the lumber industry. The new cars greatly reduced loading and unloading times as well as damages while increasing capacity compared to conventional boxcars.
And so from the lows of 1982, by 1987 the company commanded a 50% share of the total freight car market for well cars and centerbeam flats. Soon new boxcar and gondola designs were added. In the 1990s, the Husky Stack well car emerged as the new mainstay of their intermodal sales. The Auto-Max articulated autorack came along in 1997. In 1999, the company marked the milestone of its 100,000th railcar.
Today Gunderson continues as part of Greenbrier’s larger family of railcar builders. It’s marine operations also continue to build a variety of craft – completing the circle nearly broken off the shores of Washington more than 130 years ago.