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History Of Trains

June 2024
1min read

The American Railroad Freight Car: From the Wood-Car Era to the Coming of Steel

by John H. White, Jr., Johns Hopkins University Press, 644 pages

This extraordinarily comprehensive tome is for anyone who lived through the glory days of rail freight or simply wants to know more about it. For instance, White delves into the bizarre world of freight classification, where different goods were assessed different fees for the most arbitrary of reasons. This system eventually got so complicated that there were listings for such arcana as slippery elm bark and yak fat. After minutely describing the business aspects of a freight line and the life of its workers, the book goes even deeper into detail about particular types of specialized cars: eight-wheel gondolas and hoppers, refrigerators, livestock cars, as well as the familiar caboose. The technology of the cars receives similarly exhaustive treatment: thirty-seven pages on couplers and draft gears, for example.

White, who recently retired as curator of transportation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has written a book that while eminently readable will also serve as a standard reference for decades. Whenever his successors need to know something about freight cars, White’s book will likely be the first place they turn. The same should be true for anyone interested in how a growing America was powered, built, and fed.

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