What’s in the yard?

Hackensack, NJ, Spring 1920 Photo X1628, DL&W Company Photo Collection, Steamtown NPS.

Ray Breyer submitted a neat blog post based upon the freight cars and details in a single image. Read further for a look into the past. Click on any image here to review a larger size. Model references are for HO scale products.

The above photo is a great snapshot of 1920s “real world” railroading, and offers a great peek into the fabric of railroading from almost 100 years ago. Between all of the juicy freight car detailing ideas and the general clutter around the yard shanty, there should be more than enough to keep any early prototype railroad modeler happy.

Context is always important when viewing photographs. The old adage that “a photo is worth 1000 words” is nice enough, but doesn’t say whether those words are truthful or lies. Knowing WHY is as important as knowing what. Let’s see if this photo is really telling us anything useful or not from a variety of perspectives.

Let’s look at the core context of the image first. All we know for sure is the photo was taken by a Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W) company photographer in 1920. The images before and after this one are all taken in the Hackensack and Passaic, New Jersey areas, so it’s a safe bet that this one was as well. That means the traffic shown here may be sitting in some sort of smaller holding yard that served a large industrial complex around New York City. That all of the ten cars shown are foreign should come as no surprise. The area doesn’t show any growing vegetation at all, so I’d assume this is early 1920. The USRA relinquished control of American railroads on March 1, 1920, so the image may be part of a DL&W management survey to see what their property looks like after two years of Federal control.

Finally, the overall image doesn’t focus on any one thing in particular and there are no home road cars shown at all. That means that this is most likely a 100% “random”, or unstaged photograph. This is VERY important in context, since we’re seeing an actual piece of day-to-day, random railroading from early 1920, and not a staged company photo for someone’s agenda.

Freight cars!
First off, let’s look at the freight cars in the mix. There are ten cars visible, including one peeking out at the far left of the image. All of the cars are from other railroads: C&NW, CI&L, CRI&P, CP, D&RG, NYC, P&R, PRR. Only three of the cars are from direct connections, four are from the Midwest, one is from the West, and one is from Canada. The South and Southwest aren’t represented here, but this is a pretty good mix of cars for such a random photo.

In an odd coincidence, the cars are ALMOST arranged in alphabetical order.

The first two cars in the lineup are an unidentifiable stock car peeking out from another track, and a C&NW 36-foot double-sheathed boxcar with an unreadable number. With its large letter board, the stock car is most likely from a Midwestern road and most likely not a PRR or NYC car. The C&NW boxcar is pretty generic, and is one of 18,550 similar cars on the North Western’s roster.

The stock car can be recreated with a variety of models; Roundhouse, AHM/Rivarossi, or resin kits. I can’t think of a single good model match for the C&NW boxcar, but scratchbuilding all-wood, double-sheathed boxcars is pretty darned simple. I’ve got a couple on my workbench now, and it’s only taken me five hours or so to get from a plan in the 1903 Car Builder’s Dictionary to a “ready for paint” stage.

The third car is a Canadian Pacific “Dominion” boxcar (also called a “Fowler” type car), one of nearly 60,000 such cars built for various Canadian railroads between 1909 and 1925. Of the CP’s 66,000-plus boxcars, this general car represents nearly 40% of their total boxcar fleet.

These early Dominion cars are easy to model and available as great resin kits through Westerfield.

The next car is C&NW 87070, one of 6,116 identical cars on their roster (or 16% of their boxcar fleet). The details differ slightly from the other C&NW boxcar in the lineup, but it still represents one of their common car types. Again, this car will need to be scratchbuilt as the Roundhouse “old timer” 36-foot car is too tall, but it is a simple project.

Next up is another “Fowler” type 36-foot long boxcar, very similar to the CP car. This one is CI&L 2793, one of 1140 of these cars in the Monon’s 1920 fleet. Not generally associated with this car type, the Monon was nonetheless one of the largest buyers of short Fowler boxcars in the United States, and this car represents 46% of their (albeit small) boxcar fleet.

As with the CP Dominion car, Westerfield has us covered when it comes to a model. Kit 4300 should work well enough for any “generic” short Fowler. Decals for Monon boxcars are also made by Westerfield, as stock number D4106. These are actually for their SU copies, but should work in this application with a little character juggling.

Next up is yet another Fowler, this time a 40-footer from the Rio Grande. D&RG 66734 is an almost-new car to the railroad, but represents fully 25% of their standard gauge boxcars, which at the time was made up mostly of very old 34-footers. The D&RG also had a small number of then-modern 36-foot long double sheathed boxcars, similar to thousands of NYC cars.

Again, Westerfield to the model rescue, this time in the form of kit 6403.

The three single sheathed boxcars in this photo may seem to be a unusual, but in context they’re really not. Before the USRA-type cars came out in 1919, single sheathed cars were a proven car type, but not widely accepted among most railroads. Canadian railroads and the Pennsy were the two major exceptions, having built thousands of Dominion/Fowler and X23-type cars. The 1920s was “the decade of the single sheathed boxcar” with dozens of different styles of that car type being built for railroads across America. With this 1920 era photo, these cars represent two of the four major types of single sheathed boxcars then in existence (short Fowlers, long Fowlers, X23, USRA). What IS unusual is that we’re seeing three of them all in the same place, and there are no X23s in the mix.

Next up is a brand new gondola, Philadelphia & Reading 7299. The P&R was allocated 10% of the 5,000 USRA 46-foot mill gons built. 500 gondolas of this type is a drop in the bucket when compared to the rest of their large gondola fleet, not to mention all of the other gons in everyone else’s rosters in 1920. So P&R 7299 is actually the rarest of all of the cars in this image. It looks to be loaded with construction scrap, which hints that this car (and the entire string) is waiting to head out of the area to points west. As a point of fact, the P&R became the Reading in 1924, so this gondola is lettered correctly for 1920.

For USRA mill gons we have two choices: Westerfield for resin, and Walthers for plastic. Only Westerfield offers a Reading-specific version, however.

Behind the mill gondola are two more “common” boxcars: Rock Island 31977 and NYC 239964. Most us tend to overlook many of the Midwestern railroads when assembling a car fleet, but the Rock Island was in the top ten largest American railroads for most of the 20th Century and should be represented on just about any roster. This car is pretty standard for that railroad: one of 2,950 identical cars on their fleet. This 40-foot long, double-sheathed boxcar was typical of many Midwestern lines (the Rock, along with the CB&Q and IC, had long standardized on 40-foot long boxcars). This car represents about 10% of their boxcar fleet. As a point of information, 80% of the Rock Island fleet in 1920 consisted of cars 40-feet and longer.

Sadly, since very few people have bothered to model the early Rock (when it was financially solvent, and so popular that people sang songs about it), this is another scratchbuilding job. I suppose that Westerfield kit 8902 could be used in a pinch, since most of the core details seem very similar.

The NYC boxcar is likewise typical for that railroad. NYC 239964 was originally built as NYC&HR 106994 in 1910, and was renumbered at some point between 1912 and 1915. it was built as one of 7,000 basically identical cars. These are considered to be the first “modern” boxcars on the NYC roster, having that road’s then-trademark large fish belly under frames and larger car bodies.


NYC&HR 112492 illustrates what these NYC boxcars looked like when new. Built by ACF as part of a much-larger batch of 16,000 boxcars, this basic boxcar type quickly became the NYC’s standard house car, a status they’d enjoy well into the early 1930s.

Beginning in 1910 the NYC began investigating methods to modernize and strengthen their boxcars. This single car, NYC&HR 100145, built in the East Buffalo shops in October 1912, was built as a “type proof” to illustrate all of the then-standard features of a modern boxcar for the NYC. Starting in 1914 the NYC built 8,500 cars brand new to this standard, and rebuilt over 30,000 cars to match this standard. With nearly 40,000 cars of this type for various Lines roads, and between 15,000-20,000 more copies running on various other roads, this was one of the most common boxcars on American rails in the 1915-1940 period.

Funaro & Camerlengo have long made a series of resin kits to represent various versions of these NYC boxcars (kits 6290, 6580, 6581, 6582, 6583). Coming soon, we early rail modelers are getting a fantastic gift as Accurail announced four versions of this boxcar in plastic. Their new 1300 series kits will represent the cars with steel ends, while the 1700 series kits reflect many prototype cars built with wood ends.

And finally, the last car on the far right side of the photo is semi-identifiable as being a PRR “Star/Union Lines” X25 40-foot all steel boxcar. This car is one of 5,410 or so X25 cars assigned to this service, in number series scattered all over the place. We should be thankful the PRR ORER listings usually include the car class, making searches like this fairly simple. In 1920, the X25s were about the most modern freight cars in the Pennsy’s fleet, but would soon be overshadowed by thousands of X29s.

Westerfield is our friend again for this period freight car with kit number 6101.

Other details
Next, let’s look at the infrastructure, which to ME is a little more interesting than the cars. Let’s face it: we model railroaders are always looking at rolling stock and engines, but rarely look at what our scenery is supposed to ACTUALLY look like, aside from depots, ballast and a few trees. This image is particularly useful, since it has a lot of details in it that make an interesting scene and is located in a smallish yard area, which many of us have room for.

Rail and various tracklaying items can be seen to the left of the office, including what looks to be a pile of switch components and joint bars.

Items on the right side of the office SEEM to be some freight car items: coupler knuckles, cut levers, and a lockable box full of “valuable items”. Note the small barrels likely holding spikes and an old crate with a clamp attached to it. Click on the image to view these details closer. Scanning further to the right, there are more barrels of parts, a couple of lockable storage bins (including one burned out one ready for disposal), and an assortment of steel barrels likely holding journal grease. At the far right is a pile of scrap lumber.

The shed itself is a simple affair that can easily be banged out in a couple of evenings with Evergreen novelty siding, Tichy doors and windows. There’s an illegible sign hanging over one door, and notice the roof is tarpaper, not wood shakes.

Finally, there’s the track itself. As some in the hobby say, track is a model too!

Look very closely and you will see only the two foreground (mainline) tracks have tie plates. The other tracks are spiked directly to the ties! This is actually pretty common for the era, but isn’t something that we think about. Generally, if you’re handlaying track you don’t use tie plates, and if you’re using pre-made track components everything will have them. But for earlier railroading periods, a mix of the two would be a more correct approach.

You now have loads of good modeling ideas and details for a period yard scene, all placed in a contextual setting. Nothing in the photo is all that difficult to model, nothing is all that unusual, and everything falls together in a natural way to create a realistic setting.

Thank you Brother Ray Breyer for sharing many ideas based upon one photo. Feel free to share a comment in the section below. Please follow the instructions so your comment can be posted. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear.

14 thoughts on “What’s in the yard?”

  1. Hello Eric,
    Thank you for sharing this! Very fascinating info, especially on the RI. This is a couple years “newer” than what I’m planning to do but the same cars would still be in use, correct? Perhaps a little cleaner? 🙂 Probably not.
    Why is it that eastern railroad modelers don’t represent the mid-western roads better?

    1. Thanks for dropping in, Shawn! Your last question is a good one and I’ll try to hypothesize on this a bit. While the mid-western railroads had some decent size box car fleets, there seemed to be fewer overall railroads in comparison to the the eastern roads. Also, many lines crossed regional areas. Would you call the Wabash an Eastern or Mid-Western road? It stretched from Kansas City to Buffalo. Another point to consider comes down to sheer numbers. A handful of the eastern railroads had a huge number of box cars; B&O, NYC (and affiliated Lines), PRR.

      Lastly, we modelers may not have enough proper mid-western railroad box cars as we just aren’t as informed about those fleets. A modeler recently pointed out a very good article on the CB&Q wood sheathed automobile car fleet published in Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia, Volume 12. It is 41 pages of packed info and photos on cars that had escaped my attention. The quantities were not large on some of these classes, BUT the Q used the same car designs on a few of their general service XM box car classes, and there were thousands of those. This is the only published article on these early CB&Q box cars.

      Modeling the Pre-Depression Era requires some extra research but the discoveries are quite rewarding! – Eric

      1. Hello Eric,
        Thank you for the reply! As a fellow modeler of the B&O, what would you have to say about the ratio of cars interchanged from other roads? I have the basic information about businesses and industry located on the B&O branch south of Harrisonburg. Would I need to know where similar business took place on other RRs? Would a B&O have dispatched a car onto another road to pick up a load for his customer back home?
        For instance there was a tannery in Harrisonburg so would there be car loads of hides on cars from RRs that interchanged with the B&O in St Louis or Chicago? I don’t want to have one car from every RR in the US but neither do I think that I would have only found B&O cars on the branch in 1915.
        This is probably the “$64 question” whose answer may be elusive??

      2. Another question: in looking over the photos again I took a closer look at the trucks under the cars. The NYC & HR car appears to have T section Bettendorf?
        The C&NW and CP cars have arch bar trucks or Andrews?

        Another detail that pre-Depression era modelers must pay attention to!

    2. Hi Shawn,

      Mostly, I think that there’s a combination of education and bias that’s at work against Midwestern railroading in general. Most people building layouts want impressive scenery, and so immediately head for the mountains. That means a natural draw towards the Pennsy or SP. The desert seems to be a popular theme as well, so you get the UP and Santa Fe into play. Everyone thinks that Midwestern scenery is “boring”, but they’re ignoring the fact that the railroad operations of the area are anything BUT boring, and are usually far more interesting and traffic-heavy than anywhere outside of a major Eastern city (and who has room for one of those in their basements?).

      With people visually drifting towards “impressive”, they forget that there are even any railroads at all in the Midwest, and so tend to overlook most of the lines in the area: C&NW, Soo, CB&Q, IC, Milwaukee, C&EI, Alton, C&IM, L&N, M&StL, etc., etc. Most of these roads are far larger than all but a handful of the more popular roads, and generally offer heavier traffic density to boot. Want a REAL coal road? Try the CB&Q in central Illinois over something like the W&LE some time. And there IS impressive scenery to be found in the Midwest if you just look around a little.

      1. Hello Ray,
        Glad you dropped by to add to the conversation! While I am planning a layout based on a B&O branch, it was a rather obscure part of the road and the scenery might be a termed boring. I have a couple bridges to build but no mountains to go over or through!
        You’re right about great scenery in the Mid-west! I trucked for 10 years and got into those states on a regular basis from my home in VA. I had thought about using the M&StL as my prototype. Somewhat because it was a lesser known road and after seeing maps of the right of way, I knew there was some scenery potential that wasn’t flat 🙂 Changed my mind when I realized the B&O branch from Harrisonburg to Lexington, VA was similar topography and the traffic volume favored a smaller layout. And it’s close to home! the remnants are operated by NS for a couple miles south of Harrisonburg with the remainder going into Staunton being operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley as their Shenandoah Valley RR. AND the right of way passes by home about a mile and half to the east. In other words I can go see it when I have 10 minutes and explore without burning up a bunch of vacation time!!
        Another interchange question for you: Is there any rule of thumb that I could use to determine a good mix of roads based on the interchange points of the B&O? I do have information on the businesses and industry located on “my” branch.

  2. Great info here, much appreciated. As a post 1955 modeler now focused on the summer of 1926 I am struck by the similarity in height of the boxcars described. Am I wrong to assume “high car” heights were very similar in the 1920 ‘s compared to the 1950’s?

    1. Welcome aboard, Jon! Box car heights did increase over time, but there are some that went against the taller practice of the era as the railroad did not need the cubic capacity. Note the USRA box cars were built in 1919 and considered tall for that era. In 1924, the PRR and B&O began building thousands of their X29 and M-26 box cars that were noticeably shorter. By the early 1920s, many of the very short 36-foot cars that were built in the 1890s were gone from rosters or being phased out. Much of the overall fleet at this time was built after 1905, with the majority of cars probably built after 1910-1912. Car height increase incrementally, but railroads that moved automobiles preferred taller cars to serve that industry. The taller cars came in handy to move manufactured goods, too. Through the Teens, there seemed to be many more cars built to taller specs than in the previous decade. These preferences set up the taller specification on the USRA cars of 1919.

      That is a general picture of the car height issue. There are many nuances that become noticeable only when you start looking at specific car designs, like the PRR X23 cars of the Teens that had a short overall height. These historical nuggets are what makes the Pre-Depression Era fascinating for me. – Eric

    2. Hi Jon,

      One of the appeals of modeling an earlier period is actually the huge range of size differences you’d see in house cars. The “sawtooth effect” of train rooflines is a well-known reality in pre-WWII railroading, especially in the 1920s when cars started getting larger.

      Keep in mind that cars really are designed with good planning in mind. Older cars are usually smaller because their all-wood underframes can’t hold a whole lot of weight, and loadings were generally light anyway. An average boxcar load at the time of this photo was only around nine tons! When railroads started building with steel underframes cars could carry more, and the shift away from boxcars to box trucks for mid-range freight moves, which meant that boxcars were carrying more bulk loads. Stronger cars that could carry more paired with a need to get as much out of those underframes as possible meant that cars got taller (and longer). So by 1926 you’d see a mix of low-height older cars mixed in with tall 40-footers.

      But here in 1919 is just the beginning of the trend, so you’re seeing a lot of cars that were built with the understanding that they didn’t NEED to be large. That will all change within six or seven years. And that’s why it’s so important to understand what we’re looking at in a period photo, and why it’s so important to understand why you really need to pick a small time frame to model: to get a proper looking freight car fleet you need to fill it with proper cars! (if there was a single USRA single sheathed box in this photo it’d look like an absolute monster, and those cars themselves were outsized by PS-1’s)

  3. Very interesting and lots of information. However, that gondola is a (Philadelphia & ) Reading car, P&R.

    There does seem to be some rough uniformity in car height for a couple of decades, although that can be deceptive on the basis of one photo. Al least in the late 19th century the Midwest lines seemed to prefer lower roofs that the major roads to the east.

    The general trend in any given railroad was to first go to longer designs, then higher. At least that’s my non-scientific impression.

    ARA and AAR standards changed all that pretty much.

    1. Mike, I altered some of the text to specify the gondola ownership as it was a bit vague. I also added a sentence on the corporate name change of the P&R to the Reading. This is one of those important time markers of the Pre-Depression years. – Eric

  4. Dear Eric,
    What a Great posting! I enjoy your blog very much, especially this post and the one on flat cars. Outstanding work, well-writen and entertaining. I have not been able to locate a track plan of your layout; does one exist?

    I too have a blog. I am lucky to have had my layout appear in Model Railroad Planning 2015 (page 30, “An Engine Terminal Layout”). I have made my blog more like a book to document my Fillmore, rather than as a diary. It reads better by categories. If you would like to look in, you can find it at:

    Thanks for indulging me in my self-promotion above 🙂
    I look forward to your future posts.
    With Kind Regards
    Rick De Candido
    Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Rick! I recall your layout feature and enjoyed reading about it in MRP. The Wheeling Freight Terminal layout design has appeared on the blog a couple of times. The first post was back in August 2012 and included developmental sketches and ideas. Over on the Tags list to the right, click on the Operation tag and you will be able to review photos that illustrate the trackplan. I think one of the operations posts also included a scale drawing of the plan. – Eric

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