The Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad

A History of Railroad Technology

Rail Cars of the 19th Century

The "De Witt Clinton" locomotive was the third one built in the United States for actual service. The passengers are as follows, beginning at the locomotive: David Matthew, engineer; first car, Erastus Corning, Mr. Lansing, ex-Governor Yates, J. J. Boyd, Thurlow Weed, John Miller, Mr. Van Zant, Billy Winne; second car, John Townsend, Major Meigs, “Old Ilays”, Mr. Dudley, Joseph Alexander, Lewis Benedict, and J. J. Degraft. Image source: Kennedy, William Sloane. Wonders and Curiosities of the Railway. Chicago: S.C. Griggs and Company, 1884, p. 49.

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Travelling in very early railroad carriages was uncomfortable, impractical, and sometimes dangerous.  The first railroad passenger cars were built by carriage makers, as a result, they looked like coaches mounted on four-wheeled railroad wagons. Passengers rode both inside the coach and on benches mounted on top of the coach. Judge J.L. Gillis recalled his first railcar journey from Albany to Schenectady in 1831: 

The trucks were coupled together with chains or chain-links, leaving from two to three feet slack, and when the locomotive started it took up the slack by jerks, with sufficient force to jerk the passengers, who sat on seats across the top of the coaches, out from under their hats, and in stopping they came together with such force as to send them flying from their seats... There being no smoke or spark-catcher to the chimney or smoke-stack, a volume of black smoke, strongly impregnated with sparks, coals, and cinders, came pouring back the whole length of the train. Each of the outside passengers who had an umbrella raised it as a protection against the smoke and fire. They were found to be but a momentary protection... all having their covers burnt off from the frames... [and] the deck-passengers, each whipping his neighbor to put out the fire. [Quoted from: The History of the First Locomotives in America from Original Documents and the Testimony of Living Witnesses, by William H. Brown, 1871, pp. 190-191.]

By 1834, mounted carriages were replaced by rectangular rail cars with simple wooden benches and a center aisle in a style recognizable today. The first cars were necessarily short to enable them to navigate tight curves.  Later they were mounted on four-wheeled swiveling trucks, allowing the longer cars to more easily navigate the tight curves.    

Early cars were called day coaches, since most trips were short and during the day. A short journey was good because travel was extremely uncomfortable. Originally cars were one class, with people from all walks of life riding together. By the 1840s, passage was sold on second class cars and, in some cases, third class or "emigrant" cars that carried settlers further west. Passengers on the emigrant cars endured miserable conditions, often having been furnished with only a wooden bench along the wall. Some emigrant cars were freight cars fitted temporarily with wooden seats or benches for the trip to the Midwest then filled with grain for the trip back east.

With the movement westward, longer distances were covered and demand increased for more amenities. As rail travel extended into the Midwest, a passenger from the East might sit on a hard, wooden seat for 48 hours to reach Chicago. Some effort was made to make the coaches less uncomfortable by upholstering the seats, but low ceilings, lack of heating and ventilation, and rudimentary suspension systems still made for an awful ride. As ridership increased and competition between railroads flourished, passengers reaped the rewards of improved car design. 

Though the first sleeping cars were introduced surprisingly early (Richard Imlay built the first sleeper in 1837 for the Cumberland Valley Railroad), they were often nothing more than folded down wooden seat backs or wooden shelves hooked to rods hanging from the car ceiling. The passenger felt each jolt and sway. Additionally, with most trains operating in daylight on fairly short runs, there was little demand for sleeping cars. By the 1850s, with travel distances lengthening, demand increased. When Pullman sleeping cars were introduced in the 1860s, long distance travel became quite comfortable.

Though George W. Pullman did not invent the sleeping car, his name became synonymous with them. His first cars were fairly primitive, but over time he raised ceilings, improved ventilation, increased comfort, and introduced the idea of a dedicated car attendant to make up the beds and assist travelers. By the 1860s and 1870s, Pullman cars were elegant and even lavish, further distinguishing first class travel.  Pullman eventually monopolized the sleeping car industry. 

Food amenities were difficult to come by in the early years of train travel. Vendors sold sandwiches at some stations. On the longer routes, some stations had restaurants, but stops were short, there were rarely enough tables, and passengers made a mad dash in hopes of getting served in time. Many passengers supplied their own food for the journey. 

Dining cars, which came into fashion in the late 1860s, were expensive to both build and operate.  Because the high cost made them impractical, initially they were used only in the Midwest to accommodate passengers travelling long distances. By the 1880s, they were more common and increasingly more elegant. Dining cars were included on long-distance trains into the 20th century, but they almost always lost money and were maintained only as a convenience. 

Other specialty cars sprang up along the way. Originally, baggage travelled in the same car with the passenger, though dedicated cars soon followed. Trains carried mail as early as 1831, and by the early 1860s, mail was sorted and bundled in cars designed for the purpose, and delivered along the rail line.  Various "mailbag catchers" were designed to exchange mailbags on the fly as trains passed through towns. Refrigerator cars came into use in the 1860s, mainly cooling shipments by packing ice into insulated walls at the ends or in the middle of the cars. Stock cars were designed to carry animals to market. The caboose evolved from use as a storage car to one that the conductor and crew used for an office and living quarters.

Specialty Cars for Railroad Work

Many cars were designed specifically to build and maintain railroad facilities. For example, dump cars, snow plows, weed burners, and dust sprinklers were used to maintain roadbeds and tracks. Hand cars allowed inspectors and supervisors to cover a fair distance to check track work. Clearance cars made sure there was enough space between tracks and girders or tunnel walls. Poling cars were used to distribute cars in a switch yard. Dynagraph cars measured, among other things, train speed and distance, and checked the condition of the rails and road bed. Crane cars cleared wreckage, pile driver cars placed piers for bridges, and steam shovel cars excavated road beds.  

Dump cars were fitted with various contrivances to tilt sideways to deposit loads, such as gravel or soil, along the line. Image source: American Journal of Railway Appliances. Vol. 7, no. 4, New York: American Railway Pub. Co., 1887, p. 73.

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Snow plows, pushed by one or two locomotives, helped kept the tracks clear. Image source: Routledge, Robert., and John Henry Pepper. Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1876, p. 80.

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Trains raised considerable dust, which swirled into open windows. Both water and oil sprinkler cars were used to settle the dust, with oil being by far the more effective. Image source: The Street Railway Review. Vol. 5, no. 8, Chicago: Wilson Co., 15 August 1895, p. 519. 

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Weeds growing up over the rails could reduce friction in damp weather. Using trackmen to dig them up was tedious and expensive.  Weed burner cars were more efficient and cost effective.  The Hawksworth weed burner car directed both live and exhaust steam and heat from the furnace down onto the track to kill weeds. Image source: Gillet, James. National Car Builder. Vol. 16, no. 12, New York, 1885, p. 163.

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Hand cars were often used by supervisors and others to inspect track. Image source: Railroad Gazette. Vol. 11, no. 10, New York: Railroad gazette., 1879, p. 123.

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