Most of us are interested in railroads because of the glamour - gleaming passenger trains running crossing the continent, crews performing dangerous work in good weather and bad, and heroic engineers keeping their train right on the schedule’s times.
Talk to real railroaders, and you’re likely to hear a different message. You’ll hear about all the jobs we don’t model on the railroad. Car clerks typing out waybills. Station agents keeping precise records of the petty cash box. Salesmen taking shippers out for a two martini lunch. Most of all, you'll hear about the bureaucracy needed for a large, distributed company in the days before e-mail. The real railroad was all paperwork, processes to be followed to the letter, and multi-day delays for the simplest of questions.
My glamorous illusions of the railroad got dashed a couple months ago. I’m still looking for information on those Hart gondolas, you see, and a couple Google searches pointed out that the University of Texas, El Paso had a bunch of records from the Southern Pacific’s El Paso shops. Now, I’m unlikely to make it out to El Paso to look at the files in person any time soon, but I’m willing to spend a little bit of cash just in case the records are interesting. I sent the Special Collections librarian a note asking about getting copies of a couple files, and gave them a maximum amount I was willing to spend on photocopies. It took a little while; the SP records don’t appear to be referenced very often, so the library keeps the boxes of material in off-site storage in a warehouse somewhere. But within a month, I got a thick envelope from U.T. El Paso.
That stack of papers in the envelope had a few interesting finds. One file on reinforcing the Hart gondolas in 1927 gave some details about where the Hart gondolas were used on the SP. More amusingly, that particular file told a lot about SP bureaucracy in the 1920’s.
Guess We Better Ask the Big Boss
The first bit of bureaucracy involves big expenses. Railroads, like most capital intensive businesses, are very careful about how they spend money. If you’ve ever seen an official Southern Pacific railroad valuation map indicating the location of tracks, signals, and railroad buildings, you’d see that some of the sidings had “G.M.O. 73914” written next to them on the map. These were “General Manager Orders” (probably - I’ve never found an official definition for the acronym). G.M.Os gave official permission to do the big work of laying track, and the original G.M.O. would probably explain exactly why the track must be built. It turns out the G.M.O.s were for more than track; the U.T. El Paso file contained the order allowing the modification of the cars:
Office of General Superintendent, Motive Power, San Francisco, December 26, 1926
Authority for Expenditure of $9,820.00 is requested for the purpose of Improvements to the property as follows:
Reinforce underframe Hart Con-vertible cars, class W-50-3 Series C.P. 10880 to 10959 incl & 12220 to 12239 incl…
These cars were constructed with trussed intermediate sills without proper bracing, thus permitting the bottom of sill to deflect inwards, also drooping of sides.
It is proposed to reinforce cars by applying two additional cross ties, change present location of two cross ties so that intermediate sills will be properly braces laterally at each pair of side stakes between bolsters, also to apply reinforcing plates to intermediate sills.
Authority: General Manager’s letter file 414-0013-2 of August 27, 1924.
… Cost of reinforcing one car:
Material (including percentages): $95.29
Labor (including percentages $80.51
Dr. A&B Acct #55: $173.80
The records give us an idea of the process of repairing these cars. We now know that these cars were starting to fail in the 1920’s, and we also know how they’re failing - that the sides would droop and sills would deflect. We know the cost - it was worth spending $10,000 to fix a few hundred cars. We know that George McCormick, the superintendent for motive power, was responsible for deciding when to repair freight cars. We know the decision wasn’t a minor one; the railroad's general manager, J. H. Dyer, had to sign off on the purchase because the repairs would cost more than $100 per car. We know the problem had been lingering for a long time - the work had been going on for at least two years, and only only 25 out of 200 cars in this subset had been fixed already. I don’t even want to think of how many meetings McCormick had to sit in arguing whether to do this work or not.
The second bit of bureaucracy was just the effort of communications, both in the 1920’s and in a physically distributed railroad. In our era of e-mail and iPhones, it’s easy for decisions to be made easily. However the packet of papers had 50 or 60 memos from the El Paso division archives. Some letters asked for updates on progress; the work apparently went slow. On May 4, 1927, the El Paso superintendent sent a response to one of the queries stating that no work had been done on any cars, but they had one car (SP 12281) in the shops for the work. (El Paso was doing better than the Tucson division - A. J. Burke admitted no work had been done on repairing the cars. Like e-mail, memos and letters were often cc'd to relevant people in other divisions, giving the file a view of the Hart repair beyond just El Paso.) Another Hart gondola was loaded with slag and somewhere out on the New Mexico division; Superintendent Irwin ask for the car to be returned ASAP for repair.
By August, budgets must have been getting reworked, for George McCormick in San Francisco asked the divisions to hold off on repairing any more cars on one of the G.M.Os . By September, 46 cars were reported repaired - 16 in Los Angeles, 7 at Bayshore, 14 in Sacramento, 8 at Brooklyn Yard in Portland, 3 in Gerber, and the two in El Paso. I can’t imagine trying to carry on this conversation via a months-long chain of letters, memos, and telegrams. By October 1927, all hundred cars had been repaired, and the GMO was declared complete.
We need to talk about your TPS report covers.
And finally, there was just all the odd little exchanges. A bunch of letters in early 1928 from San Francisco asked R. U. Lipscomb why El Paso spent over expectations on the car repairs.
Auditor of Disbursements advises GMO 71402 now overrun $524 and GMO 71403 overrun $113.00.
The original cost per unit for this work was estimated at $173.80. Los Angeles Shops have verified this figure ample for the 1928 program.
Below is a tabulated list of units in excess of the estimated cost as shown in our records. Please give reason for the increase in cost and state whether this represents cash or second-hand value or if credit adjustment will be arranged. Please give this matter preferred attention.
Ah, nothing more fun than getting e-mails from a manager questioning charges. The El Paso division files includes Lipscomb’s page of math as he figured out the costs to answer his boss, responding ten days later with:
While we have been able to perform work on labor authorized, you will note from the above that the material cost is in excess of amount estimated on Form 30. Set of reinforcements for one car amounted to $100.30. In handling this with the Store Department, they advise this was the cost of one set of reinforcements carried over from 1926 and that the remainder received are invoiced at $85.00”
Even with that bit of information, the questions weren’t ended; two weeks later, McCormick writes back wondering if the Stores cost already includes labor. El Paso responds that the Sacramento Stores apparently double-charged them by including labor costs; L.A. had lower costs because the L.A. accountants were wise to the Sacramento Stores budget tricks. It still took a couple months of mailgrams between A. J. Burke and R. U. Lipscomb in El Paso, Edward Blumenstiel in the El Paso office, and McCormick in the head office before the whole double-charged for $15.00 a car battle ended.
So What Did Those Memos Actually Fix?Even with all these accounting and responsibility and cover-your-ass memos, there were some nice tidbits for modelers. One of the letters was kind enough to include the L.A. Shops list of parts needed for car repair. (A separate accounting by the El Paso shop superintendent tells us exactly how many bolts and rivets were used on each car. I'm not interested in those because I'm not one of those "rivet counter" model railroaders.)
|8 Intersill Stiffeners||752 lbs @ 2.59 Cwt.||$19.48|
|2 Cross Tie Channels||322 lbs. @ 2.60 Cwt. $8.37||...|
|4 Cross Tie Top Plates||120 lbs…||3.13|
|8 Intersill Stiffener Fillers||42 lbs1.10|
|4 Stake “U” Bolt Brackets||12 lbs||0.32|
|2 Cross Tie Gussets||51 lbs||1.33|
|4 Intersill & Cross Tie Connections||48 lbs||1.25|
|4 Stake U Bolt Brackets||12 lbs||0.66|
|4 Outside Inter Cross Tie Gussets||105 lbs||0.32|
|2 Inside Inter-Cross Tie Gussets||50 lbs||2.74|
|2 Do||50 lbs||1.31|
|4 Hopper Sill Brackets||8 lbs||0.21|
|4 “” “”||5 lbs||0.14|
|4 Hopper Top Plate Supports||25 lbs||0.65|
|4 Intersill Reinforcing Places||20-130 lbs,||3.38|
|Labor, laying out, shearing, forming and punching…||22.65|
|Labor, apply to car||42.16|
|Use of machinery & tools||4.02|
And We Also Know Where the Cars Were
So far, all the information I've shared has been pretty dry. The correspondence should be familiar to anyone who's worked at a large company, and it doesn't tell us too much about the models of the W-50-3. The list of parts for strengthening the car might hint at how the W-50-3 class cars changed between construction and later years, although it'll still take a bit of work to understand exactly what changed.
But the file does contain some tidbits that could be very interesting for a model railroader. The letters discussing cars fixed not only documents which shops around the Southern Pacific system performed repairs, but also suggests where the Hart Convertible Gondolas were being used in the 1920's.
41 cars were specifically identified as converted in 1927:
- 14 at Los Angeles,
- 6 at Bayshore,
- 5 in “Southern District” (Los Angeles?)
- 5 at El Paso,
- 3 in “Northern District” (Portland? Dunsmuir?)
- 2 at Tucson,
- 2 at Sacramento,
- 2 at Brooklyn (portland),
- 1 in New Mexico,
- 1 at Gerber.
These details hint at where those W-50-3s might have been found in the Southern Pacific system. If you model Northern or Southern California, or El Paso, W-50-3 cars should have been visible. If you were in the southwest or Portland, you might see them. If you're in Nevada or Utah, you're out of luck - they're nowhere to be seen. This information doesn't replace photos as evidence for where particular cars or locomotives might have run, but if we're looking for a rough answer about whether the Hart gondolas would have been seen in the Bay Area in the 1920's, this is a good bit of confirmation.
But There's Still MoreAll this information came only from the first chunk of letters in the files I got from U. T. El Paso. Another 50 pages came from the work to remove home-built snowplows from 7 former El Paso and Southwestern gondolas. The third packet covered GMO 79727, another year's attempt to fix the Hart gondolas.
The last packet had twenty pages documenting the saga of two CS-35A flat cars, SP 79075 and SP 79026. The correspondence was triggered by the cars being used for maintenance-of-way service without officially being charged to the MOW service. By doing so, the SP probably was missing a bit of a tax break by writing off the remaining value of the cars. Every time you letter a car "SPMW", you're actually missing the months of back-and-forth memos needed to throw those cars off the roster of revenue cars.
From George McCormick, back at the head office in San Francisco:
Mr. E. A. Gilbert inspected these cars Jan. 18 at El Paso and found they were assigned to a concrete outfit on the New Mexico Division for sometime past and are permanently fitted suitable for such service, where they should remain. Also it will cost but $5.00 per car to restencil, while cost to return them to revenue service would be approximately $300. each.If you ever dreamed of working on a railroad, I imagine answering telegrams from San Francisco about $10.00 overruns and restenciling cars wasn’t why you wanted to join the railroad. You probably would have had more fun dreaming about being an insurance actuary.
Please submit form 30 in the name of Southern Pacific Railroad to convert…”
So How Do I Find Records Like These?
Although rare, a few research libraries and archives do have former SP files and drawings in their collections. The files that exist are a tiny fraction of what the railroad kept, but occasionally you can get lucky (like I did here) and find documents relevant for a subject you're either interested in for history research or model building. Generally, find the libraries that might have the correct documents, then look for finding aids which will tell you the actual documents that were saved.
For the SP, common sources are Stanford Library (various records, including freight cars and some land records), California State Railroad Museum, U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library, University of Texas El Paso (Rio Grande division), San Francisco Maritime Museum (Southern Pacific ferry records) and California State Railroad Museum. The Online Archive of California website provides a single place to look for relevant collections in many different California libraries.
In each library, you'll be searching for collections - related boxes of records, usually donated together - related to the Southern Pacific. Each collection usually has a "finding aid" - a document that summarizes what records are in a specific collection. In Stanford's finding aid for its Southern Pacific records, you can find exactly which corporate records survived, a list of folders for specific land or track improvement projects, or photos for specific freight cars. With the name of the collection and the identifier for a folder inside that collection, you now can ask the owning library about viewing the material at the library, or, like I did, ask whether they can make a copy of particular materials.
Records from GMO 71402 and GMO 71403 from the Southern Pacific Company (Rio Grande Division) records, MS 077, University of Texas El Paso Special Collections department. Thanks to the librarians who pulled these files out of dusty boxes and photocopied a couple hundred pages of telegrams, mail, and assorted scribblings. Excerpt of Southern Pacific valuation map for Campbell, California excerpted from an original drawing at the California State Railroad Museum Library.