Early railroad history books were primarily corporate histories and didn’t delve into any detail on rolling stock in spite of the occasional inclusion of a freight car photo in the inevitable “plates” positioned among a sea of gray text dealing with the minutia of profit and loss statements, board room machinations, and pictures of old, bearded, dead guys.
My friend’s question took me aback – is there one, just one, book that he should start out with? I will say that after some reflection I did recommend one single book to my friend, caveated with a far more extensive list of other books that constitute “very nice to haves.” I’m happy to report he’s busy filling his bookshelves with some of these volumes!
It also sent me to my bookcase to see what books I’ve acquired, and more importantly, have actually used as reference.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list. But it, at the very least, might initiate some discussion as inevitably your recommendations are going to differ from mine.
What’s NOT included below are periodicals. Yes, I have a complete set of Ted Culotta’s Essential Freight Cars series from Railroad Model Craftsman, and the vast majority of the late Richard Hendrickson’s freight car “surveys” from RailModel Journal and the like, and highly recommend them. But I’m keeping this list to books – not magazine articles.
And while I have a couple of them in my personal library, and use them, I’m also not including primary prototype references, meaning you won’t find Car Builder’s Cyclopedias (and the Newton Gregg reprints of those volumes), and original railroad erection drawings and the like listed here.
Before I get too much deeper into the meat of this post I’d like to call out one “book” that perhaps many readers have never encountered.
The first book I encountered written for the prototype modeler was the NEB&W Guide to Steam-Era Freight Car Modeling & HO Scale Kits, a collection of photocopied notes (600+ pages worth) by John Nehrich. Although it wasn’t the first time someone published a book for modelers on freight cars - Wayne Wesolowski had one out several years beforehand and Kalmbach had published a compendium of the old Dollar Car series of articles - this book was different. It wasn't limited to modeling but attempted to actually identify the prototype for the then-available freight car models.
I’m not positive, but I believe acquired mine on a visit to RPI prior to my moving to Wisconsin to join the MR staff - which would put it sometime in the mid-1990s. I was shocked to realize I had not one - but two (one with a black cover, the other red - I suspect the latter is an older version) when I came across them when packing for our recent move. While most of the information is far out of date, and filled with a lot of John’s assumptions that didn’t always prove correct, I believe this stack of photocopied pages is worthwhile for two reasons.
First, it offers a snapshot of prototype modeling back in the days when generic Athearn, AHM, and Model Die Casting cars far outnumbered detailed accurate rolling stock. Secondly, it did attempt to categorize freight car history as an evolutionary set of solutions to engineering problems – which enhanced my understanding of how freight cars actually evolved over time.
Since then literally hundreds of books and thousands (tens of thousands??) of pages have been published on steam era freight cars. Rather than attempting to list them, I’d think it’s easiest to categorize them.
Where we are today
I’d place steam era freight car books into one of the following broad categories:
- Focus on a particular car builder or private operating company, with an emphasis on that company’s rolling stock fleet
- Focus on the history or evolution of one particular type or class of cars (refrigerator cars, hopper cars, etc…)
- Detailed history of a particular railroad’s rolling stock fleet
- Photo surveys – essentially photos of individual cars with expanded captions.
These categories may offer some focus for adding to your personal library. While a dedicated freight car historian will find a great deal of interest in all four categories, a dedicated Santa Fe modeler might limit their reference material to that one railroad. Likewise, someone only interested in building or weathering rolling stock might want to emphasize the last category on this list and focus on photo survey type books.
Focus on a particular car builder or private owner
One of the best examples of a book fitting this category I can think of is Pacific Fruit Express by my fellow Model Railroad Hobbyist columnist Tony Thompson (although Tony would be the first to point out he shares the byline with Robert Church and Bruce Jones). This survey of the PFE company focuses more on the equipment and facilities and less on the financial history, which alone made it stand out at the time it was published. I can’t prove it, but believe it inspired many similar volumes.
Edward Kaminski has written a number of books on individual freight car builders, including American Car & Foundry, Pullman-Standard, and Magor. One I highly recommend is American Car & Foundry Company, 1899-1999. This centennial history covers corporate history and product development, but emphasizes the immense variety and extent of railcar production with more than 1200 photographs, most from the files of the builder and few ever published, makes for an excellent overview of a significant builder of steam era freight cars.
A more recent example is UTLX Steam Era Tank Cars, Steve Hile’s new book from Speedwitch Media. As the name indicates this is a definitive work on the largest tank car fleet of the Steam Era. Honestly, I haven’t dove into my copy yet but a cursory flip through the pages looks like this will be a valuable addition to the library. Tony Thompson has done a complete review of the book here.
Focus on one particular type or class of cars
I’ll offer three specific examples in this category, although there are literally dozens of others.
Martin Robert Karig’s Coal Cars: The First Three Hundred Years, is a detailed (to say the least!) look at the evolution of coal-hauling rolling stock in both the UK and USA over three centuries. Again, an excellent overview of the evolution of the technology and freight car construction methods and materials.
Modeling milk cars and trains was a hot topic a few years back. For model railroaders interested in milk cars I can’t think of a better single reference than Robert E. Mohowski and Carl A. Ohlson’s The New York, Ontario & Western Railway and the Dairy Industry in Central New York State: Milk Cans, Mixed Trains, and Motor Cars. Look beyond the title to find a detailed look at the evolution of milk car design, construction, and operation from the earliest days of railroading through the end of shipping milk by rail.
The third example I’m including is Ted Culotta’s The American Railway Association Standard Boxcar of 1932, a survey of the 1932 ARA Boxcar, including detailed roster information and photos of each of the many variants of this significant class of freight cars.
Detailed history of a particular railroad’s rolling stock fleet
The Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society has published a number of spiral bound books dealing with specific car types (boxcars, refrigerator cars, auto cars, etc…) over the years. I include Richard Hendrickson’s Santa Fe Railway Painting and Lettering Guide among this category.
Another obvious inclusion in this category would the series of Southern Pacific rolling stock books written by Tony Thompson.
Photo surveys – essentially photos of individual cars with expanded captions.
It would be difficult to not mention Morning Sun’s extensive line of color books in this summary of published freight car information. Starting in the early 1990s (again, as best as I can recall) Morning Sun started publishing an extensive series of color guides. Essentially, these are – or were – books featuring photos taken out on the line, or the equipment guides, which featured roster shots of individual cars.
One caveat although the cars shown in the Morning Sun books may have been built in 1940, the paint scheme and photos show those cars are usually much later than as built. Also, some Morning Sun books have captions that are, to put it mildly, more accurate than others. Two books from
Morning Sun that are extremely accurate are shown here – the Northern New England and New Haven books, primarily through Steve Horsley’s extensive efforts reaching out to freight car and regional railroad experts (in truth he’s no slouch on New England rail history himself), and ensuring the photos and captions told a comprehensive story.
I’m not sure if they constitute a book or a periodical, but no steam era freight car library can be complete without Railway Prototype Cyclopedia, published by RPCYC Publishing and (primarily) authored by Pat Wilder and Ed Hawkins. The first volume was published in 1997, and the result was a 34-volume series. Each edition features an in-depth look – and lots and lots of photos – featuring one or more types of rolling stock. While some volumes included locomotives and passenger cars, the vast majority are transition era (and slightly earlier) freight cars. Some volumes are still available, although these are quickly disappearing off most dealer's shelves. I have seen a couple of “full sets” for sale in the secondary market but in general they are starting to command prices above their cover price.
Getting back to the question that started this long rambling post, we come to the “one book” recommendation my friend requested. After thinking about it for a day or two I think the best single book you can get on transition era freight cars to help your modeling might very well be The Postwar Freight Car Fleet: North American Freight Car Designs From 1898 to 1947. Authored by the late Larry Kline and Ted Culotta, and published by the National Model Railroad Association, this book features photos from the Bob Charles collection. The captions are full of insightful and accurate information on each car shown. Making this even more useful and interesting is the fact that photos show a number of freight cars during a limited time period (1947-48) in one specific geographic location.
Lots of great potential freight car projects to get someone started in accurately modeling transition era rolling stock between the covers of this single volume. And you could easily use it at a foundation to build a more detailed library as your knowledge grows and interests evolve.