Freight cars: They delivered the goods

December 21, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Staff Writer

This latest work by John White weighs in at about 10 pounds, measures 13 inches by 10 1/2 inches, and grew about a pound a year during the 10 years it took to research and write.

It joins his other mammoth work, "The American Railroad Passenger Car," which was published in 1978 and grew out of the same research efforts by this senior historian emeritus and former curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. Together the books make bookshelves sag, but who cares?

They will remain for some time definitive technical and historical studies of American railway equipment.

Not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, theswork-a-day freight cars carry the country's commerce from shore to shore. Until Mr. White's work, they had been passed over as a subject of detailed inquiry because the passenger car and passenger train is more socially fascinating.

"The downtrodden gain a certain romantic cachet as objects of pity," Mr. White writes. "Freight cars might be likened to galley slaves or migrant workers -- used roughly and treated hard, unappreciated and underpraised."

There are many kinds of freight cars: coal, box, stock, gondola, tank. Whether carrying coal, merchandise or animals, they have evolved because of a particular need.

Up until the adoption of standard-gauge rails -- 4 feet 8 1/2 inches -- interchange between rail lines was difficult. Commerce was often disrupted since wheels or trucks had to

changed or loads trans-shipped.

Freight trains moved at 10 mph -- a vast improvement over the horse and dray wagon, but slow nonetheless. Even with improvements in rail lines, steel cars and faster locomotives, Mr. White tells us, the speed improved only to 10.3 mph. In the 1880s, a freight car carrying canned goods took 14 days to travel from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.

The earliest examples of freight cars began in 1826 on the Granite Railway of Quincy, Mass. By 1830, the Baltimore & Ohio had its first eight-wheeled car designed to haul firewood.

The progression and development of freight cars reached its ZTC zenith in the 1890s with the development of the steel car. It was safer and lasted longer than its wooden counterpart, which could be reduced to splinters during a wreck.

Safety appliances such as the Westinghouse air brake removed forever from the tops of cars the brakemen, who carried hickory sticks and "set brakes" when the engineer signaled with his whistle. These new brakes improved not only operation of trains but the delivering of goods.

The standard automatic coupler banished the "Dance of Death," in which brakeman in the link-and-pin days were forced to stand between the cars to couple them by dropping in an iron pin. A misstep or a lurch could result in death or serious injury.

Mr. White has lavishly illustrated his text with plans, drawings and pictures. Many are drawn from such notable collections at the B&O Railroad Museum; the Peale; the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del., the Chaney Collection at the Smithsonian, and the Union Pacific Railroad Collection.

He gives a detailed insight into railroad operation, explaining how trains were made up and operated between points.

During the era of specialty and custom cars, there were such oddities as the pickle cars, designed for the H. J. Heinz Pickle Co. in 1897 for the shipment of its wares. But perhaps the most odd was the Stillwell Oyster Car, which was built by Pullman in 1897.

Because George Pullman liked fresh oysters, he had a 30-ton wooden tank car built with four compartments. The Gulf oysters were kept in saltwater and shipped from Port Arthur, Texas, to Kansas City.

Mr. White writes: "Ice was added during the hot weather to hold temperatures to a level agreeable to the mollusks as they rattled through midwestern communities, whose corn-and beef-eating inhabitants could not be expected to understand the taste for so strange a dish as raw oysters."

Fred Rasmussen is a member of the Metro staff of The Sun. He began riding the rails at an early age.

BOOK REVIEW

Title:"The American Railroad Freight Car, From the Wood-Car Era to the Coming of Steel"

Author: John H. White Jr.

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

?5Length, price: 644 pages, $79.95; $125 after Jan. 31

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