Builders of Wooden Railway Cars ... and some of other stuff

Gunderson, Inc.

This sketchy article is totally dependent on the Gunderson corporate history referenced in the “For More Information” section below. That work contains not only a more detailed account, but a more personal one as well, highlighting the family details of this very much family business.

Gunderson—long a well-known name among railfans and model railroaders—and possibly so also among professional railroaders, had its beginnings in 1919, when Chester E. (Chet) Gunderson (1894-19??)set up the Wire Wheel Sales & Service Company in Portland, Oregon.

The 1st World War—the “war to end all wars,” said then-President Woodrow Wilson—had ended only months before, and that new-fangled invention, the automobile, was on everyone’s mind.

Chet had set up a small electrical contracting business when he was 18. This business was impacted by the war, but he was ineligible for war service because of a problem with his optic nerve. He then worked in a logging camp before becoming a clerk in a bank. In 1918, he and two friends went into the motorcycle repair business, calling their business the Wire Wheel Service Company. Within a year the friends had departed, and Chet became a distributor for a Pennsylvania wire wheel company. He called this new business the Wire Wheel Sales & Service Company.

About 1923, Chet’s brother Alvin became a partner in the business, and two years later they incorporated it as Wheel & Rim Service, Inc. Chet was the businesses technician, while the more sociable Al was its marketing arm. His “contacts” would serve the company well in future years.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the business expanded into all kinds of auto parts, both sales and service. They tried and failed to make a go of the fertilizer business, then in 1936 went into the manufacture of trailers at nearby Linnton (now part of Portland). They developed a double-axle trailer that became much in demand. Then they developed a wheel hub to complement a new type wheel for which they obtained a franchise.

In 1938, the brothers organized a subsidiary corporation to manufacture these hubs, calling it just Gunderson Brothers. Soon they were assembling school bus bodies, hearses, ambulances and van bodies, as well as manufacturing their double-axle trailers.

But that year was not a good one for Gunderson. The Great Depression was on, and—like many other manufacturers—Gunderson got in a credit pinch. Orders were slow to come, and customers even slower to pay for what they did order. While not formally going through bankruptcy, the company was nevertheless treated by its bankers as if it were. Cash receipts were immediately hand carried to the bank, where they were doled out to creditors.

In 1941, Gunderson Brothers acquired waterfront property and went into the ship building business. They also began manufacturing ship parts. And they became a distributor for General Motors diesel engines and invented a way to link two of them to increase available power.

During the 2nd World War, Gunderson was a subcontractor to many of the shipyards located in the Portland-Vancouver area that were building warships. As the war continued, it also began building LCMs and later built plywood lifeboats of its own design. Toward the end of the war it manufactured semi-trailers for the army and  tugboats for the navy. All this while, it continued with production of essential domestic products such as logging trailers and highway semi-trailers.

On 29 May 1942 Gunderson incorporated in Oregon under the name Gunderson Bros. Engineering Corporation.

In 1950, Gunderson phased out its very profitable line of logging trailers as an increasing number of steel fabricators began offering them. It began to take on an increasing number of one-time jobs such as bridges, gates for dams, large diameter pipe, structural steel frames for buildings, tugboats and barges, and water tanks.

Yet by the end of the 1950s, the demand for such “projects” had begun to decline. For lack of something better, Gunderson bid on an order for 150 box car underframes for the Southern Pacific RR., and somehow found itself the low bidder! And thus began a whole new chapter in the Gunderson story.

Gunderson made a good profit, and the Southern Pacific was so pleased by the product they ordered 1,000 more, and then another 750. And with that, Gunderson Bros. added the field of mass-production to its already sizable lines of business. It began receiving orders from other railroads for other types of car, and while it manufactured them it also improved its facilities for building them.

As age and wealth caught up with them, the Gunderson brothers decided to sell the business, and on 6 August 1965, the Gunderson Bros. Engineering Corporation became a wholly owned subsidiary of FMC’s Ordnance Division.

In 1966, Gunderson built the first all-steel, all-welded wood-chip cars, an instant hit. It followed up with other all-steel, all-welded cars of various types.

In 1973, Gunderson became the Marine and Rail Equipment Division (MRED) of FMC Corporation.

During the 1970s, Gunderson introduced a 100-ton covered hopper car. It also introduced a 100-ton high-side gondola car designed for rotary coal dumping service. Tax breaks made freight car leasing attractive, and car orders proliferated. But certain parts were hard to get. By 1979, things had worked out, and that year Gunderson built 6,027 cars.

But 1980 brought recession, and car orders were cancelled by the thousands. In addition, leased cars were spurned by the railroads in favor of their own, and rural sidings became vast storage yards. Like railroad car builders from time immemorial in this boom-and-bust business, Gunderson put workers to work on other projects. The following table tells the story.

Year Cars Built
1980 4,801
1981 1,593
1982 25

At the same time, railroads were consolidating, and the government found deregulation politically expedient.

Gunderson saw the future, and the future was intermodal transportation: semi-trailers on trains. The 10-Pack was introduced by the ATSF. The car leasing division of Intel Corp. bought the patent and came to Gunderson for manufacture. Gunderson built 704 of the ten-car units between 1981 and 1984. Then came the

Double-Stack dev by SP and Sea-Land (containers)

100 cars built by ACF went into svc in 1970s but had no impact

Few yrs later Thrall took license from Budd, which had dev a "well-car" for trailers and dev concept to stack two containers.

DeBoer & Yates had been involved in dev at SP -- left to work for Greenbrier Leasing
Corporation, at that time a transportation based leasing and management company.

Bill Furman (GB Pres) -- alum of FMC -- and Alan James, bought Greenbrier in 1981 and increased fleet.

Furman, DeBoer & Yates worked w/ Gund to dev car. Deal: Greenbrier would define what the car needed to look like commercially. Gund would engineer it and finance half the development work. The two companies would split the profits from the car 50-50, but Greenbrier would hold exclusive marketing rights to the car, making all commercial decisions and financing the cost of marketing.

For More Information

Kathy Hinson (ed.), Gunderson; A history of an Oregon Company (Portland, OR: Gunderson, 2000).

This corporate history is the work of a lot of different people. It was researched by E.M. “Benny” Lundquist, produced by Bruce Harmon, and designed by Dennis Johnson, with photographs by Hugh Ackroyd, Harold Hutchinson and Bruce Harmon. It is a very personal and complete history of the company. Railfans will be most interested in Chapters 13 and following, as that is where the rail car building is described. There are lots of good photos, as well. This history is available both in book form and online in PDF format at . When you access that page, be sure to scroll down, as the links to the history are below what appears to be a complete home page (depending on the resolution of your monitor).

09 April 2006

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