|Nowadays, we take for granted that a car of one
railroad will run just as well on any other railroad and, should it need repairs
while away from home, railroad technology is such that the “foreign” road will
be able to repair it and send it on its way.
It was not always thus.
In the earliest days of railroads in the United States, individual railroads were short and seldom connected with other railroads. Each had its own ideas about how cars should be built, and either built them for themselves, or had them built to order by independent builders. The fact that the cars of one road were totally different from those of another didn’t matter. Cars simply didn’t run on more than one railroad.
The most basic difference between cars was the gauge—the distance between the rails—for which they were built. This varied all the way from four feet to as much as seven. During the Civil War, operation by the Union army over the railroads of the south became very important to the war effort. The U.S. Military Railroad Organization was created to address the issues involved in trying to make a coherent operation over the conglomeration of railroads of different gauges it found in the south. Discussions with the major railroads of the north began in 1862, and continued throughout the war.
Following the war, the issue of gauge continued to be important as railroads proliferated, and more and more regional lines made “connections” that made them part of a larger national network. It became apparent that the paths of commerce required some “standard” that would allow cars of one railroad to run on the tracks of another. The alternative was to unload cargo from the cars of one railroad and reload onto the cars of another: a costly alternative in terms of both time and expense.
Through a combination of discussions and circumstances, capped by the Pacific Railway Act of 1864, that “standard” became 4 feet 8½ inches.
The discussions between the railroads that had begun during the war continued afterward, and at a convention in May of 1867 it was decided it would be a good idea to form an association of men responsible for the cars of each railroad, variously referred to as car-masters or master car builders. This association—the Master Car-Builders Association—was established 18 September 1867 at Altoona, Pennsylvania, to deal with the problems created by interchanging freight cars.
The first action of the association was to try to formulate rules regarding those parts of a car most subject to breakdown while on a “foreign” road, and thus in need of immediate repair: such parts as wheels, axles, and bearings. But it would be 19 years before those rules would be enforced by the railroads.
One thing the association did do. At its 5th annual convention, held in Richmond, Virginia, in 1872, it was “Resolved, That a committee be appointed with power to publish an illustrated book, defining the proper terms or names of each and every part used in the construction of railway cars, and a description of the use of the same.” And thus was conceived The Car-Builder’s Dictionary.
But we all know how committees work—they don’t. The Car-Builder’s Dictionary, when it was published, was largely the product of Matthias N. Forney, an honorary member since not himself a car-builder, but nevertheless the elected Secretary of the Association. The fact that Forney was the editor of the Railroad Gazette, an industry trade publication that incidentally became the publisher of the Dictionary, no doubt had something to do with it.
The Dictionary was published in 1879. It consisted of a list of terms used in car-building, a section of 811 engraved illustrations of cars and their parts to which the terms were keyed, and a section of advertisements, which paid the costs (one hopes) of publication. If car-builders couldn’t find common ground on anything else, hopefully, they could at least now begin to speak the same language!
The Dictionary has been updated periodically ever since. If you are interested in the details of its publication history, please see our Bibliography.
Our Railway Car-Builder’s Dictionary attempts to follow in the spirit of the commercial venture, and is in no wise a continuation of it. Terms will be added as need and occasion permits. If you have a term you'd like to know more about or think ought to be included here, please drop us a line! We are always looking to expand the dictionary, especially if you can supply a picture to illustrate your term.