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Passenger Equipment Of The Early Years

In the beginning, the "Rail Roads" were thought of as a form of improved public road. The very first passenger equipment were Concord stage coaches fitted with cast iron wheels with people not only sitting in them, but on the roof seats as well. The industry soon grew out of this formative stage and began designing equipment suitable to its needs. The result was a rapid - and remarkable - evolution.

By the 1850s, the design of passenger cars had settled into a simple and functional design. These "crackerbox" cars (which later came to be known as "Zulu" cars) were based on box car concepts. As the cargo was lightweight, if bulky, the standard box car chassis (box cars ran about 36' long in those days) was stretched out and a pair of porches added to either end for boarding: resulting in a car about 50' long.

No pretense was made to comfort. The seats were unpadded upright benches crammed as close together as possible. Ventilation was done by opening the window. Heat (if the car was heated) was from a wood burning stove and light supplied by a couple of oil lamps.

The trucks were standard freight car archbars - adequate at 5 mph, but not at all pleasant (or safe) at the dizzy pace of 30 mph. There was only a hand brake and they used link-and-pin couplers, which made for wicked slack action.

Sanitary facilities were an enclosed closet with a "thundermug" - assuming there were sanitary facilities. This could not be presumed, however, as trains would stop every few miles for water and a gentleman could take the occasion to slip behind a bush. A long distance journey (and New York to Washington could take all day) was a test of endurance. (In all fairness, it might be noted that, as bad as these cars were, they beat the Concord stages all hollow.)

As the railroads gradually linked up and began forming regional networks, the young country began to turn away from being a nation of coastal cities. Trade and travel began to look to the steam cars, rather than the packet ships, and the natural direction changed from up and down the Atlantic seaboard to westward. It was cars like these that settled the Ohio basin and the uplands of Georgia and began the first great migrations into the wilderness beyond the Mississippi.

The design would prove itself in the 1860s when the railroads met their first great test as a weapon of war. It is an axiom in military circles that small minds study tactics and great minds study logistics. The railroads gave the Union and Confederate armies unprecedented mobility and logistic support and, at the same time, forced them to adopt new strategies and new objectives unheard of in Napoleon's time.

The nation reunited, all eyes turned westward to fabled California. The railroads, which had brought travelers to the frontier towns of St. Louis and Chicago, now began pushing westward, where these cars found their lasting fame in the period now known as the age of the Wild West.

By the end of the Civil War, the railroads were an established industry with established concepts. While the Zulu cars were opening the frontier, back East, things were more settled and people began demanding better accommodations. Carbuilders began experimenting with improved carbody designs, improved trucks and more attractive interior appointments.

By 1870, most of the modern concepts of carbuilding were taking form. The carbody now had a "clerestory" roof, which allowed the warm air to rise (this is the same reason why turn-of-the-century houses have such high ceilings). Ventilation was now supported by a series of vents in the clerestory. The windows could now be kept shut and air be drawn in through these vents. Interior appointments included leather and horse hair padded seats, more ornate lamps and fittings and more restroom facilities. Carpeting also began to appear on some cars.

Externally, these cars now rolled on specially designed trucks that were more stable at speed and less likely to break apart. An archbar truck is made of metal straps held together with long bolts. If a bolt shears, the truck can disintegrate. These new trucks admittedly were made of oak, but they were in the form of a main frame resting on cast metal axle bearing pedestals bolted to the lengthwise beams. Springs and rocker assemblies absorbed shocks. This fundamental concept remains unchanged (albeit with improvements in materials and engineering) to this very day.

Cars also began to specialize. In 1859, a fellow named George M. Pullman converted a couple of Chicago, Alton & St. Louis RR coaches into sleeping cars with fold down bunks. These were a special application: the travelers they served were arriving from the West by coach, and the railroad felt they would appreciate a chance to lie down and get some sleep. The idea quickly caught on, as we shall see later.

At about the same time, another experimental car, the "Delmonico" was constructed to provide meals on the run. Prior to this, meal service meant that when the train stopped for an engine change at the division point, the passengers had about 30 minutes to swarm over the nearby beanery. Having a rolling restaurant (the car was named for a famous restaurant in New York City) insured the passengers some sort of orderly meal service and saved the railroads hours in scheduling as well.

By the turn of the century, carbuilding had become a refined (indeed, overblown) art form. This was the height of the Victorian Age, when society had presumptions, attitudes and character traits that we look upon with bemused wonder today. They also had a fascination with ornate, opulent workmanship. Every public facility- hotels, public buildings, steamships and passenger trains were masterworks inspired by the High Gothic and Italian Renaissance schools of European art.

These beautiful cars came to be known as "Varnish" because of the layers of lacquer applied to the wood interiors. Upholstering was in rich brocades, rare woods like cherry, teak and mahogany were inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. The new Pintsch gas lamps were bright brass, rich in metal scrollwork and polished to a high gleam. Carpeting became universal and the windows - once simple, functional openings - became portholes and arched cathedral windows based on Gothic architecture. Leaded art class, in both the window transoms and lamp shades, was now common.

To give you an idea of how ornate these cars were, a typical Varnish 12-1 Pullman (as shown above) cost around $50,000. By comparison, a box car cost around $800, and a two story middle class home on an acre in suburbia cost about $3000.

Externally, paint and decor reached dizzy heights. The cars were painted in bright, individualistic color schemes (often for a specific train) and buried in hand applied gold leaf striping and scroll work. This car shows the paint scheme applied to the "Pennsylvania Limited", otherwise known as "The Yellow Kid" (the name refers to a popular 1890s comic strip character).

Mechanically, major advances in carbuilding technology were developed - and often made their way to freight equipment later. Among these were automatic air brakes developed by a fellow named Westinghouse, and the first semi-automatic couplers. These were a single piece iron forging which worked rather like the NMRA horn hook couplers used on model trains today. To uncouple them, the brakeman shoved the coupler back against its closing spring by using a long lever mounted to the vestibule railing.

Another fundamental improvement was the enclosing of the vestibules. Moving between cars of a train at speed was a hazardous undertaking. One was likely, at least, to lose ones hat or to be rained upon. The worst case possibility did not bear contemplating.

Around 1890, a man named Barr came up with an enclosed booth around the deck portion of the vestibule. Access to the stairways was through accordion folding doors and the adjoining vestibules were sealed together by a flexible coupling. This consisted of a metal plate in the shape of a doorway mounted on springs. A canvas curtain connected the diaphragm plate to the rigid vestibule and a pair of overlapping steel deck plates provided continuous footing.

The Barr Vestibule (known today as the narrow vestibule as is shown on the illustration) made the train into one long tube. The design was soon improved upon by extending the vestibule to the full width of the car and covering the stairwells with trap doors: another design still in use today.

Another fundamental advancement was the composite end sill. In order to reduce structural damage from rough handling, the underframe between the truck bolsters and the end sill was made of a single metal casting. The center part of the frame and the carbody were still made of wood.

By the dawn of the 20th Century carbuilding technology had reached full flower. Mechanically, these cars are mature, modern concepts and the accommodations up to date in all respects. As the new century comes in, there remains only one step to take in the evolution of the modern passenger car: all steel construction.


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North East Rails  Clint Chamberlin.
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Current update: 8/20/99