Looking for historical railroad info

DMPirrone Jan 24, 2016

  1. DMPirrone

    DMPirrone New Member

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    Hello all,

    Just discovered this site--I'm an author of historical mysteries set in Chicago in 1872 (titles are Shall We Not Revenge and For You Were Strangers). I'm working on Book 3 in my series, where the murder victim is clunked over the head and then crushed by a boxcar in a Chicago rail yard (the car was deliberately moved, but it was meant to look like a tragic accident). I'm seeking info on how the freight cars worked, what mechanisms existed to keep them from rolling in the rail yard (for example, switches or any brakes there might be), and would also love to see photos of boxcars and railroad tracks from 1860 through 1871. If anyone here can help me out, I'd be most grateful.

    Thanks,

    D. M. Pirrone
     
    FriscoCharlie likes this.
  2. FriscoCharlie

    FriscoCharlie Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

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    Welcome aboard! I'm sure you will receive good input from our members.

    Charlie
     
  3. acptulsa

    acptulsa TrainBoard Member

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    Getting an eyeful of equipment from that era is as easy as plugging 'USMRR' in your search engine.

    Cars had brakes which clamped down on the surface of their wheels. They were operated by turning a handwheel. At the time, these handwheels generally protruded from the top of the car. This is because locomotive brakes were not sufficient to stop the train, so brakemen had to run up and down the train on the tops of the cars turning those brakewheels while the train was in motion. The wheels were hard to turn, so they carried wooden clubs which they inserted through the spokes of the brakewheels and up against the shaft. These acted as 'cheater bars' and gave them enough leverage to get the brakes tight.

    Air brakes eliminated this dangerous practice from the 1890s. But brakewheels were still used to set the 'parking brakes' (to use the automotive term) for decades thereafter. And more than a few collisions resulted from trainmen not setting the brakes tight enough on cars. This was probably uncommon in Chicago because the land there is so very flat. But who knows? Sometimes the wind whistles in off Lake Michigan with impressive strength. And if lake spray were blown up on shore with enough force, it could get the wheels wet, and could actually seep in between the brake shoes and the actual wheels that the car rode on. Yes, in those days there were extensive tracks and rail facilities right on the lake shore. But that's awfully far fetched.

    You'll also be wanting to plug 'link and pin coupler' into your search engine. A picture is worth a thousand words, where those are concerned. Suffice it to say that very few brakemen in those days still had all of the ten fingers they were born with.

    Good luck crushing him. The wheels would cut him in half. But the car frames and bodies were built so the coupler pockets contacted each other, and so that there was enough room between the cars at that point for the brakeman to stand there holding the coupler link up. They would be closer together on one side if the cars were on a curve, but those rail yards had no curves. The only curves cars in those yards encountered was the crossovers, which were switches that allowed cars to be moved from one track to the the next track over. Otherwise, about the only ways to crush someone with a rail car was to place his head right in front of the coupler pocket, to tip it over on him, or to put him in between cars and ram them together with enough force that they were severely damaged.

    Of course, if the cars were moving fast enough, they could crush someone with momentum. But on flat ground, not even a wind as strong as the one that was blowing the night of the Great Fire would do the trick. A locomotive could, of course. And there were winches which were used for moving cars, though they weren't portable and didn't move cars very fast.

    Those yards and the warehouses nearby were chock full of easier ways to crush a skull. Steam cranes with lousy brakes, ramps with heavy items at the top, unattended block and tackle rigs, and any number of heavy railroad gear propped up against walls abounded. The whole South Side lakefront was an OSHA inspector's wet dream.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  4. Randy Stahl

    Randy Stahl TrainBoard Member

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    Many times a body is placed under a train to conceal evidence of foul play.

    Train crews (switchmen and brakemen )were regularly crushed between cars in the performance of their duties.

    In the 1870's there were rudimentary handbrakes and very few cars were humped or flat switched because of the old link and pin couplers.

    Back then the cars didn't roll that well!
     
  5. acptulsa

    acptulsa TrainBoard Member

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    This. Makes it look like he crossed a track while cars were being pushed down that track. That might actually fool a cop of the era.

    I've heard that, too. But I think that refers to guys skimming the roofs while the train was moving. In which case any crushed heads were a result of the fall. Of course, cars weren't built that well, and if the loose nut on the throttle of the locomotive shoved two cars together hard enough to damage them, may God have mercy on the brakeman or switchman in between.

    Definitely that. And if the crooks thought rolling one would be easy, it could make for some comedic moments.
     
  6. Randy Stahl

    Randy Stahl TrainBoard Member

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    This. Makes it look like he crossed a track while cars were being pushed down that track. That might actually fool a cop of the era.

    It fools cops of this era....
     
  7. acptulsa

    acptulsa TrainBoard Member

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    If you really want your bad guys rolling a car fast enough to crush someone in a gruesome manner, have them push a hopper off of a coal bin. These sometimes had rails on top of them so the coal was easy to dump into the bin. The rails would run up a ramp built onto one end of the coal bin itself, and the locomotive would save labor by shoving the hopper full of coal up the ramp.

    Shove a hopper off one of those and let it roll down into a car parked on flat ground, and any body placed in between would be awfully hard to identify. Both of the cars involved would be heavily damaged, and the noise would bring switchmen on the run.

    By the way, switchmen did much the same work as brakemen, but stayed in the yard and didn't ride the trains cross country.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  8. acptulsa

    acptulsa TrainBoard Member

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    Actually, you probably could get the some of the cars of the era too close together for human comfort, if you removed the link coupler from between them.
     
  9. Ironhorseman

    Ironhorseman Staff Member

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    I'll add my welcome to TrainBoard. :)
     

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