Freight Car Friday – Poultry Cars

22 11 2013

Over their long history, railroads have helped carry just about everything – including Thanksgiving dinner. The shipment of cattle and livestock is well-known, as is the traditional image of the slat-sided “cattle car” used to haul a great variety of animals to market. Poultry on the other hand was less common and required even more specialized equipment. So with Thanksgiving nearly upon us, what better time to look at the turkey – train connection?

Like other specialized cars, the origins of the poultry car date back to the late 19th Century. William Jenkins, a traveling freight agent for the Erie, and James Streeter, an Indiana poultry dealer, received the first patent for a live poultry car in 1884. By this time, Streeter’s business was already shipping 30,000 dozen eggs and 15,000 lbs of dressed chicken from Muncie to New York City weekly. The growing trade of refrigerated transportation by rail was already revolutionizing America. But  Jenkins and Streeter saw an ongoing need for fresh chicken and other fowl which could only be met by live transport.

poultry car

PPKX 5065 represents a typical “Poultry Palace” from the high-point of their success. Note that in addition to a road number many of these special cars were named like passenger equipment. This was the “Meierfeld.”

Previous attempts at shipping chickens and other birds by rail involved packing the live birds in small crates and shipping them aboard boxcars. Many did not survive the trip and those that did were emaciated and undesirable. Jenkins and Streeter’s new design put the lives and comfort of the birds as top priority.

The small compartments were retained (128 of them), but now were built against exterior walls lined with screen to let in fresh air. The boxes were also sloped towards the outside of the car as a “self cleaning” feature.  A single car could carry up to 1,400 turkeys – and even greater numbers of smaller fowl. The floors of the individual coops could be adjusted depending on the size of the bird. Chickens, turkeys, geese, even pigeons were all transported in these cars along with many other birds.

An isle ran down the center of the car, and in the middle of all of the cages was a small room for the traveling attendant who rode with the car to market. The attendant was responsible for seeing that the birds were watered (a 750 gallon tank was located on the roof) and fed. Feed was stored in a compartment beneath the floor of the carman’s room. Final feeding would be done shortly before arrival to fatten the birds as much as possible for market.

The attendant’s quarters included a small bunk, but one has to wonder how he ever got any sleep amid the constant noise and smell of more than 1000 birds being jostled about. The poultry cars were often called “cackle cars” with good reason. There are reports of boosting the car’s capacity by stacking an additional twelve coops inside the stateroom. This could increase the payload by as much as 432 chickens and one very irate attendant.

lionel car

Lionel has had its version of the poultry car in the line for years, including this latest Thanksgiving version cataloged in 2013. It is not as whimsical as you may have thought!

To ensure adequate air flow through the car, small vent doors were placed in the ends. Early cars had a clerestory roof like passenger cars. Later, this was replaced by a hinged running board on the roof which could be swung open to reveal a 27″ wide slot the length of the car. One has to pity the brakeman who walked the roofs of a freight train at night… Muslin curtains were also used on the outside of the car sides during the winter to help keep some warmth in. All of these vents and curtains were handled by the attendant.

By the 1920s, the Live Poultry Transit Company had a fleet of over 2,000 cars in operation in the U.S. New York City was the destination for more than 60% of this traffic, owing in part to a large Orthodox Jewish population whose dietary restrictions required Kosher meat freshly slaughtered by a Schochtim. During the holiday season, 60 to 80 cars arrived in Manhattan daily.

In an effort to promote new business along its line, in 1920 the Rock Island assembled a “Nebraska Poultry Special” – a forty car train which included a full-size poultry house on a flatcar, 72,000 live chickens and other special exhibits and lectures. These fowl were premium loads at premium prices for the railroads – which more than offset the extra troubles in their handling.

Turkeys were less accommodating to travel. By the 1920s, while the railroads rushed to “put a chicken in every pot,” most had given up on live turkey movements. The Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey was shipped already dressed in a reefer.


While the shipments of live turkeys fell off in the 1920s, much of the business was retained as dressed birds on board improved reefers.

At around its peak in 1928, 51% of America’s poultry traveled by rail. Following the Depression and WWII, the rise of motor carrier trucking quickly ate into this market. During the 1940s, with full carload shipments in rapid decline, some composite half poultry / half reefer cars emerged. (Similar prototypes had been tried in the 1890s as well.)

By the 1950, 15 cars remained in the roster of the Poultry Transit Company – the last in the corporate lineage of carriers –  and the last official shipment came in 1956. Some paltry poultry shipments may have continued through the express services like Railway Express Agency, but these would not have ridden in dedicated cars.

Only one poultry car is known to survive today; PTCX 423 is preserved at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation. After retirement from rail service, it remained in use as a stationary coop until 1986 when it was finally acquired by the Museum.

Surprisingly little has been recorded about this interesting venture. For more information on railroad poultry cars, see the primary source of information for this article, “Home to Roost: The Story of Live Poultry Transit by Rail” by John H. White, Jr published in Agricultural History, Vol. 63 No. 3 Summer 1989 by the Agricultural Historical Society. Another great article can be found on the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum’s website, “Turkeys & Trains” by Bob Barcus.

Freight Car Friday – USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcars

15 11 2013

Last week we took an overall look at the freight cars developed by the United States Railway Administration during World War I. Let’s follow up on that this week with a closer look at one of the USRA prototypes reproduced by Lionel – the double-sheathed boxcar.

What’s a Double-Sheathed Boxcar?


Plans for the USRA double-sheathed boxcar from the Railway Mechanical Engineer show the prominence of the fish-belly underframe.

A double-sheathed boxcar has sheathing, or siding, on both sides of the structural members which make up the sides of the car. This gives the car a smooth-sided appearance on the exterior. On the USRA’s double-sheathed car, those interior braces were made of wood, not steel. This reduced the weight of the car and construction costs, but it also lessened its capacity and durability.

To help compensate for the reduced strength of the wood construction of the walls compared to the single-sheathed design which had an exposed steel Warren Truss frame, the double-sheathed cars were rated at 40 tons while the single-sheathed version carried a 50 ton rating. Also, the double-sheathed cars featured a fish-belly underframe. This thicker casting was one of the distinctive features of the car.


The C&NW owned 1250 USRA double-sheathed boxcars – all given even numbers.

When the USRA was formed, the merits of single vs. double-sheathed designs were still very much in debate among the American railroads. (Such discord was more common than agreement in those years.) The same was true among members of the committee.

There were concerns over production costs and delays due to the special length of boards required for the single-sheath car. There was also great debate over the need for cars as large as 50 ton capacity. Consequently the USRA split their intended orders for boxcars and proceeded with both designs for production.

Roster of USRA Cars

The double-sheathed boxcar was initially assigned to 28 railroads. For a variety of reasons, some of these cars were not delivered and reallocated to other lines. 500 of the initial 25,000 car order were never delivered. Those 500 cars can be attributed to an order of ventilated boxcars for the Florida East Coast car Ferry Company.


USRA Double-Sheathed Boxcar Roster


The roster shown here includes the initial and final assignments. Not included are any of the “USRA clones” built after the war. Click here for a pdf version of the roster: USRA double sheathed boxcar roster *Data for the roster was compiled from “USRA Freight Cars: An Experiment in Standardization” by James E. Lane, DBA, CPA in Railroad History No. 128, published by the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society in Spring, 1973.

The vast majority of these cars were built by American Car and Foundry, with 11,000 assigned. Other builders included Keith Car and Manufacturing Co. (1500), Laconia Car Co. (1000), Lenoir Car Works (2000), Liberty Car and Equipment Co. (1000), McGuire-Cummings Manufacturing Co. (500), Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co. (4000), Pacific Car and Foundry Co. (2000), Standard Steel Car Co. (2000).

After the War

ATSF box

Even after years of revenue service, many of the USRA cars ended their careers in company service. The Santa Fe had one of the largest fleets of these cars when new.

Following the war, these cars still had a lot of service life in them of course. Many railroads rebuilt their cars with steel sides. Often, they would retain the original fish-belly frame making these rebuilds much easier to spot. Some cars lasted long enough to help out in the war effort again in World War II. Rebuilding programs varied from road to road with some extending the height of the car, replacing roofs and or ends in addition to simply re-sheathing with steel.

While the USRA cars were not the last double-sheathed boxcars built, they were certainly the design’s final hurrah. As this design was on its way out of favor, the single-sheathed USRA boxcar design was the car of choice for railroads looking to build duplicates, although there were also duplicates of this design built at least as late as 1951. With the quantities and variety of operating roads, one of these cars should look right at home on just about any steam-era layout.

Freight Car Friday – USRA Standard Freight Cars

8 11 2013

On December 28, 1917, amid the chaos created on the rails from the unprecedented traffic demands of the “Great War,” President Woodrow Wilson shifted control of America’s railroads to the newly-created United States Railroad Administration. Most model railroaders are already familiar with the USRA’s standard steam locomotive designs. Much less has been written about the 100,000 USRA standard freight cars.


The need to create these freight cars is seen in the purpose of the USRA itself. In the months leading up to the government takeover, America’s railroads were grinding themselves and the entire industrial infrastructure to a halt. Much has been written and

USRA Mallet

The USRA’s standardized steam locomotives are well documented and widely accepted. The 100,000 freight cars ordered have received less attention and acclaim.

speculated as to the factors behind this failure; the causes were many and muddied. The result however was clear. Thousands of tons of goods were piling up on the ground and rotting in the fields because the railroads could not deliver them fast enough to the ports for shipment to our armies fighting in Europe.

Sighting the need for efficient rail transportation to the war effort, President Wilson used his wartime powers to place the private companies under temporary government control. It was no doubt as controversial in 1917 as it would be today but there was no time for debate.

single sheathed

The single-sheathed boxcar was the most common of the USRA designs.

Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo assumed control of the USRA in addition to his regular duties. The USRA set forth to improve the efficiency of railroads by implementing a number of local changes in line with a nation-wide plan and goal. Equipment would be pooled, terminals and yards shared, routings made more direct (except in cases where a circuitous routing would be more efficient due to congested areas like Pittsburgh) and operations like passenger ticketing and freight classifications centralized. And of course to meet the need for additional equipment the USRA would order thousands of locomotives and freight cars to standardized designs.

The Fight for Standardization

Railroads had made some minor moves towards national standards prior to WWI. The Master Car Builders Association had created universal standards for trucks, couplers and airbrake components – essential for the free interchange of cars between lines – in the first decades of the 1900s. Other roads that operated as part of “systems” or under common ownership also often adopted standardized car or locomotive designs among themselves.

composite gon

The composite gondola had unloading doors in the floor making it suitable for a variety of loads including coal.

But as far as the design and construction of cars and locomotives as a whole, each of the major railroads still considered its needs unique and its engineers superior to the competition. Indeed the efficacy of the USRA’s standardization was as much debated after the war as prior to the exercise.

Again, the USRA did not have time for the luxury of debate over the value of standardization as a whole. There would of course be plenty of dialog over what would constitute the “best” standard design. Despite this, the USRA announced designs for freight cars by the end of March, 1918 – just three months after its creation. This was in no small part to existing studies which had been performed by the American Railroad Association leading up to the war. The ARA’s findings were no less criticized by the railroads, but the USRA had the unmatched ability to put the debate into practice.

The Cars

Although more cars were designed, and as well there were some “non-standard” cars built under the USRA’s license and operation, the 100,000-delivered freight car fleet came down to just five designs:

  • 50 ton single-sheathed boxcar
  • 40 ton double-sheathed boxcar
  • 55 ton all-steel hopper
  • 50 ton composite drop-bottom gondola
  • 70 ton all-steel mill gondola

The 55 ton hopper was similar to several common hopper designs already in service in the Northeast. These drawings can be found in the April, 1918 issue of Railway Mechanical Engineer.

The designs are reflective on the standard practices of the era with a mixture of wood and steel being used. This was as much for fast assembly and availability of materials as for the still ongoing debate over the best uses of both materials – the strength of steel vs. the light weight of wood.

Note the lack of any flat, tank, stock, reefer, or covered hoppers from the list. Covered hoppers had not really come into vogue yet. Most of the commodities we now associate with them were hauled in boxcars in 1918. Existing fleets of the other designs must have been deemed adequate by the USRA and the railroads as no cars were ordered or produced although there were plans and recommendations for improvements for reefers and even baggage and passenger equipment.

The USRA placed an unprecedented order for 100,000 total cars with 17 different builders for a total cost of $289,453,450 on May 1, 1918. That’s over $4.3 billion in 2012 dollars!

Allocating the Cars

DLW double sheathed

The DL&W received 800 USRA 40-ton double-sheathed boxcars. We’ll take a closer look at the prototype for these Lionel models next week.

Perhaps the only thing more controversial to the railroads than the standards of the cars was who would get them. Some roads asked for cars the USRA determined they really didn’t need. Others did everything they could not to accept the cars they were assigned including going to court. Complicating all of this for the USRA was the fact that peace broke out before all of this construction and allocation could be completed.

Some cars were built before a buyer could be had. These were stenciled with the reporting marks GET (Government Equipment Trust) until the USRA could convince a railroad to take them. The cars were not gifts from Uncle Sam – each road paid for their allotment. Though one has to think that an inventory of excess cars on hand probably didn’t work to the taxpayers’ benefit when the disputed cars were finally sold.

Ultimately, 64 railroads received USRA cars. The breakdown included 50,000 boxcars (25,000 single and 24,500 double sheathed + 500 non-standard ventilated boxcars), 24,500 composite drop-bottom gons, 7,000 hoppers (4,500 standard cars, 500 non-standard twin hoppers and 3,000 non-standard 70 ton 3-bay hoppers) and 4,500 steel gons.


Were the standard freight car designs a success? Like the steam locomotives the grade you give the USRA’s freight cars depends on your perspective. As to the cars themselves, most were in service long enough to serve in the next World War. They were generally regarded as good cars of solid construction and could interchange between railroads without problem.

steel gon

The 70 ton steel gondola was built in relatively low numbers and delivered to only five railroads; all of whom served a large number of steel mills.

The steel hopper, produced in “small” numbers in comparison during the war was adopted with minor changes as a standard car design by the Association of American Railroads and cloned by the tens of thousands.

The boxcars were among the first cars to be rebuilt. The debate over the preferred boxcar design ended quickly after the war in favor of all steel or at the very least single-sheathed cars. Most of the USRA cars would be rebuilt however with improved ends and steel sides. Many of these rebuilt cars would see another 40 years of service.

Ultimately, the USRA may not have been able to settle the argument on the merits of standardization but they did at least open the eyes of many who had dismissed it outright. Over the coming decades the railroads and car builders would continue the trend.

Learning More

Very little has been written in modern publications on these cars. Some of the best information, including the plans shown in these images, can be found from the time of their production. See Volume 92 of the Railway Mechanical Engineer (1918) for lots of great information. An article with drawings can be found in the April issue, but you’ll find smaller news clips about both the standard cars and locomotives scattered throughout the year.

An excellent article on the cars also appeared in Railroad History, Volume 128 of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (Spring, 1973.) James E. Lane’s history of the cars includes tables outlining both planned and final ownership allocations of the the entire fleet.

Freight Car Friday – Owney the Railway Post Office Dog

23 08 2013

The “Dog Days of Summer” are here – the perfect time to take a look at one of the cuter faces of railroading. Chessie the cat may be the best-known railroad animal, but the Railway Postal Service had a mascot that was even more well-traveled.


Nobody is quite sure how it started. but in 1888 a scruffy little mutt found his way into the Albany, New York post office and became a regular fixture. He took from following the postmen to following the bags themselves. This took him into wagons and of course, onto the trains.


Owney was a pride and joy for the Railway Postal Service. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Soon Owney was traveling from city to city with the clerks as they sorted mail in the Railway Post Office. He was considered a good luck charm – no train he rode every had an accident. And whenever he arrived in a new city, the postmaster added another tag to his collar. Word of Owney and his travels moved quickly – the RPO was after all the center of the nation’s communications network of the day. Owney even embarked on a world tour in 1895 via train and steamship across the United States and Asia.

The Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, took a liking to the dog and had a special vest made for his growing collection of tags. He would be featured in newspaper articles around the country. He was perhaps the most famous dog of his era, capturing the growing spirit of adventure and travel in the way only a lovable mutt can. Some of his trips were planned, but often Owney came and went as he pleased. With each stop, the tags on his vest only added to his legend.

Albany may have been home, but Owney was happy anywhere the mail and rails would take him. Image courtesy of National Postal Museum.

Albany may have been home, but Owney was happy anywhere the mail and rails would take him. Image courtesy of National Postal Museum.

Sadly, Owney died in Toledo in 1897. Official cause of death was a gunshot wound. Owney had always had an independent spirit and in his older age was growing less fond of handling, even by the postal workers. After biting a clerk and lunging at the chief of police, Owney was put down.

Postal workers from around the country took up a collection to have his body preserved. Today Owney and his medals belong to the Smithsonian and can be seen in the atrium of the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C.

In 2011 Owney was featured on his own postage stamp. He has also been the subject of several children’s books, school activities, a commemorative spoon – he even has his own Facebook page! Thankfully, although no official record of his travels remains, much can be learned from the tags and constant media coverage to document the majority of Owney’s experience. You can learn more about Owney through the National Postal Museum.

While we all like the mechanical side of railroading, it’s important to remember it has a human, err canine, side as well.