Freight Trains Transport Food, Goods

SP Narrow Gauge No. 9 pulls freight train into Laws, CA (Richard Boehle collection)Following California's gold rush, freight wagons and stagecoaches provided transportation of goods to the mining camps. As these communities grew a more reliable means of transportation was needed. The first railroad in California, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, began hauling ore, food, goods and machinery between Placer and the river docks in Sacramento in 1855, shortening delivery time and reducing shipping costs. Similar railroads would soon connect other mining towns with river ports and other railroads.

The completion of the Pacific Railroad in 1869 made possible for Eastern manufactures to ship manufactured goods and equipment directly to Reno and Sacramento by rail. The completion of subsequent transcontinental lines and connecting lines provided similar service to other parts of the West and Mid-west. By 1916 the Nation's railroad network had grown to 254,000 miles of track.

Freight cars are picked up from the shipper, sorted at railroad classification yards during their trip across country, placed in trains going to their next destination, sorted at the next destination classification yard, placed in another train and finally delivered to their destination. A freight car may be picked up by one railroad, then interchanged with another railroad to take it on toward its destination. Each railroad keeps track of the location of each freight car while it is in transit on their system.

Today the Nation's railroads still provide fast and economical transportation for manufactured goods, cars, trucks, equipment, farm products, food, metal, wood, paper, coal, oil, chemicals and other commodities in a combined annual total of nearly 2 billion tons in nearly 500,000 freight cars. They move nearly 40 percent of our nations freight (measured in ton miles).

Brakes and Couplers

The Brakemen in the early years would apply the brakes by turning the brake wheel on the top of each car when the engineer signaled to stop the train. Two Brakemen would work from the front and rear of the train moving from car to car applying hand brakes on each car until the train would come to a stop.

George Westinghouse patented the design for a fail-safe air brake system in 1872 which allowed the locomotive engineer to apply brakes for the entire train using compressed air. Under the Westinghouse system, brakes are applied by reducing train line pressure, and released by increasing train line pressure. When the engineer applies the brake by operating the locomotive brake valve, it reduces the train line pressure and in turn triggering the triple valve on each car to feed air into its brake cylinder. When the engineer releases the brake, the locomotive brake valve portal to atmosphere is closed, allowing the train line to be recharged by the compressor of the locomotive. The subsequent increase of train line pressure causes the triple valves on each car to discharge the contents of the brake cylinder to atmosphere, releasing the brakes and recharging the reservoirs. With air brakes installed, brakes only required to be individually hand set when the cars were left standing in a yard or on a siding.

Freight cars during most of the nineteenth century were linked together by link and pin couplers. A link looked much like a single link in a steel chain. Each car had a pocket for one end of the link to fit into, a pin needed to be inserted into the pocket to hold the link. The link needed to be manually aligned to fit into the pocket, and the pockets weren't always the same exact height which made the job of linking the cars together very dangerous. Between 1877 and 1887, approximately 38% of all rail worker accidents involved coupling. Automatic knuckle couplers, first patented by Eli H. Janney in 1873, helped make the job safer.

The Safety Appliance Act in 1893 made air brakes and automatic couplers mandatory on all trains in the United States.

Flat Cars

The flat car was the first freight car built and has undoubtedly been the second most widely used type of freight car in American railroading. Flatcars are used for loads that are too large or cumbersome to load in enclosed cars such as boxcars. The open flat deck of the car can be wood or steel, and the sides of the deck can include pockets for stakes or tie-down points to secure loads. Modern flatcars designed for carrying machinery have sliding chain assemblies recessed in the deck.

V&T Locomotive transported on a UP flat car, photo by Otto Perry, Ogden, Utah, May 9, 1969, courtesy Denver Public Library OP-19492The flat car has been popularized by carrying lumber, mining timber, military tanks, machinery and objects too large to be easily fit into box cars, even stage coaches and locomotives.

Intermodal flat cars are used to transport trailers or containers which can be unloaded from the flat car and trucked to a final off-railroad destination. This type of service is referred to as intermodal service. Intermodal service, as we know it today was first implemented on the Chicago Great Western Railroad in 1936. By 1955, the railroads were moving 168,000 carloads of trailers and containers. In 2003 intermodal shipments became the primary source of revenue for the Class I railroads. In 2006, the railroads moved 14.6 million intermodal trailers and containers, an all time high.

Other specialized types of flat cars include bulkhead flatcars which are designed with sturdy end-walls (bulkheads) to prevent loads from shifting past the ends of the car. Loads typically carried are pipe, steel slabs, utility poles and lumber and centerbeam flatcars which are designed for carrying bundled building supplies such as dimensional lumber, wallboard, and fence posts. They are essentially bulkhead flatcars that have been reinforced by a longitudinal I-beam that runs along the center of the deck.

DRGW Gondola No. 859 (Richard Boehle Collection) Gondola Cars

A traditional gondola car resembles a flat car with sides added. Gondola cars have been primarily used to transport loose bulk materials, such as minerals, ore and talc, but have been pressed into other duties such as carrying machinery or scrap metal. Some gondola cars have a mechanism, such as bottom drop doors, which allows their contents to be unloaded from the bottom or side.


Hoppers are used to transport loose bulk commodities such as coal, ore, grain, track ballast, etc. They are similar to the gondola car but also include bottom dump doors for easy unloading the commodity being carried. There are two main types of hopper car: covered hopper cars are used for cargos that must be protected from the elements such as grain, sugar, and fertilizer; open hopper cars are used for commodities such as coal, track ballast and ore, which can get wet and dry out being harmed.

Box Cars

Carson & Colorado Ry. Box Car No. 7 at Laws (Richard Boehle Collection)Box cars were the most fundamental and widely used type of freight car in American railroading, capable of caring freight of almost all descriptions. The box car was the earliest type of freight car developed, beginning as 4 wheel boxes, with 8 wheel box cars emerging by the 1830's. Box cars have a floor, four walls, a roof and side doors, some specialized box cars have end doors as well.

Originally box cars were hand-loaded, but in more recent years mechanical assistance such as forklifts have been used to load and empty them faster. Containers and trailers have gradually replaced box cars for general freight shipments. Containers can be easily transshipped and are amenable to intermodal transportation, carryable by ships, trucks or trains, and can be delivered door-to-door.

Refrigerator Cars

Refrigerator cars were developed to carry perishable items, such as fruit, produce, beef, poultry and dairy products longer distances by keeping the items cold, originally using blocks of ice. Refrigerator cars were in use as early as 1842, although they were not widely used until the late 1860's.

ACF Referigerator Car Builders Photo, pre 1911The first refrigerated boxcar entered service in June 1851, on the Northern Railroad of New York. This "icebox on wheels" was a limited success and was only able to function in cold weather. That same year, the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began shipping butter to Boston in purpose-built freight cars, utilizing ice to cool the contents.

When the railroads arrived in California, Southern California oranges and other citrus fruit were already popular. Refrigerator cars made it possible to ship California grown fruit and produce to cities in the East, where the products were soon in high demand. As a result, California agriculture boomed.

A car would typically be cleaned and pre-cooled, and the ice bunkers would be loaded with ice before delivery to the customer for loading. Ice would then be topped off. One innovation in refrigerator car design was the Bohn patent design car featuring improved cooling and collapsible ice bunkers which allowed the car to carry more cargo when refrigeration was not needed. When filled, the ice bunkers held 3 tons of ice, which was replaced at icing stations every 200 to 400 miles.

In the latter half of the 20th century mechanical refrigeration began to replace ice-based systems. Mechanical refrigeration units replaced the "armies" of personnel required to reice the cars. In the 1960s the "plug" door was introduced, providing a larger opening to facilitate loading and unloading.

Stock Cars

A traditional stock car resembles a boxcar with slats missing in the car's side (and sometimes end) for ventilation for carrying livestock. Stock cars can be single-level for large animals such as cattle or horses, or they can have two or three levels for smaller animals such as sheep, pigs, and poultry.

Missouri Pacific car, Denver Public Library. Call Number: OP-13219The first patented stock car designs that actually saw use on American railroads were created by Zadok Street. Street's designs were first used in 1870 on shipments between Chicago and New York City. Alonzo Mather, a Chicago clothing merchant who founded the Mather Stock Car Company, designed a new stock car in 1880 that was among the first practical designs to include amenities for feeding and watering the animals while en route. Henry C. Hicks patented a convertible boxcar/stock car in 1881, which was improved in 1890 with features that included a removable double deck. George D. Burton of Boston introduced his version of the humane stock car in 1882, which was placed into service the following year.

Getting food animals to market required herds to be driven distances of hundreds of miles to railheads in the Midwest. The herds were loaded into stock cars and transported eastward to regional processing centers.

Some of the early railroad companies adding passenger cars to the trains that hauled early stock cars. The New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company followed this practice as early as 1839, and the Erie Railroad advertised that livestock handlers could ride with their herds in special cabooses. Handlers could provide water, etc. for the cattle during shipment. These early passenger accommodations were the predecessors of the later "drovers caboose" designs that were used until the mid 20th century.

UTLX Tank Car No. 11051 (Richard Boehle Collection) Tank Cars

A tank car is designed to carry liquid loads, such as petroleum products, liquid chemicals and liquefied gases. Many variants exist due to the wide variety of liquids that can be transported. Some are insulated.

Tank cars are grouped by their interior linings and not by the cargo carried.

Coil Cars

Coil cars are a specialized type of rolling stock designed for the transport of coils of sheet metal, particularly steel. They are considered a subtype of the gondola car, though they bear little resemblance to a typical gondola.

Auto Carriers

Auto Carriers are specialized multi-level cars designed for transportation of unladen automobiles and small trucks.


Union Pacific Caboose No. 25129 at Orange Empire Railway Museum (Richard Boehle)Cabooses have trailed freight trains in North America since the early 1840's, beginning as box car offices. Most early cabooses were box cars with windows and side doors, others were flat cars with shanties built on top. The caboose served several functions, one of which was as an office for the conductor. A printed "waybill" followed every freight car from its origin to destination. The conductor kept the paperwork in the caboose.

A brakeman and a flagman also rode in the caboose. Before cars were equipt with automatic air brakes the engineer would sound the locomotive whistle to signal when he wanted to slow down or stop. The brakeman then would  make his way forward, twisting the brakewheels atop each car with a stout club. Another brakeman riding the engine would work his way toward the rear. Once the train was stopped, the flagman would walk back to a safe distance with lanterns, flags and other warning devices to stop any approaching trains.

The caboose also served as a train crew quarters, kitchen and lookout.

The cupola caboose is believed to have emerged on the Chicago & North Western in 1863, making it easier to view the train and display train signals, although the idea did not spread quickly.

Passenger cars were often used as cabooses to additionally accommodate passengers and baggage in "mixed train" service on branch lines or shortline railroads.

Today most railroads have replaced the caboose with an electronic end of train detection and control device.


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Pacific Time Photos courtesy Denver Public Library and Richard Boehle collections, text by Richard Boehle.
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