Volume 1, Issue 3 - Spring 1998

High Side Gondolas
of the Denver & Rio Grande Western

- Bill White-
A special thanks to Will Cheshire for information and help with this issue.

Gondola History

Although the Rio Grande Southern Railroad owned a small amount of rolling stock, none of these cars was a gondola. All of the gondolas used on the railroad actually belonged to the Denver and Rio Grande Western. So even though this web page is devoted to the RGS, the subject of this issue will be the high side gondolas of the D&RGW. I am not an expert on these cars, so it is very likely that you have knowledge or information that I do not. If so, please write and let me know what I am missing or have wrong. I plan on doing another issue on gondolas in the future, and any additional information would be greatly appreciated.

In 1921 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was just recovering from the bankruptcy that resulted from its involvement with the Western Pacific. Reorganized as the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the company embarked on a rebuilding and upgrading campaign that lasted for most of the decade and touched all parts of the railroad’s physical plant. For the narrow gauge, this period saw the purchase of the K-28 and K-36 class locomotives. Rotary snow plow OY was also purchased as was the crane or derrick OZ. The long refrigerator cars were built, and the boxcar and gondola fleets were rebuilt into the versions that we are familiar with today. There are two excellent photos of gondolas being rebuilt in Alamosa on pages 18 and 19 of Jack Thode’s book, George L. Beam and the Denver & Rio Grande, Vol. II.

The Rio Grande operated several types of gondolas before the rebuilding in 1923. Parts 3 and 4 of Robert Sloan’s series on gondolas (in the Nov/Dec, 1981 and the Jan/Feb, 1982 issues of the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette) discuss these cars in detail. After the rebuilding all of the new cars are of the now familiar high side configuration. While the cars are very similar overall, they all differ in detail, particularly in hardware design and installation. It is these differences that make the cars interesting and appealing, and it’s what the remainder of this web page will discuss.

The differences have many causes. First, the gondolas are of wooden construction, which inherently introduces slight differences. Second, they were rebuilt from several different types of cars, each of which had its own unique design. Lastly, the gondolas were about twenty years old when rebuilt, and had accumulated twenty years worth of various, and usually unique, repairs of the many dings collected in the course of normal operations.

All of these causes combined to make each car an individual even before the rebuild got started. The rebuild itself was a totally new design that introduced many new parts to the cars and removed some old ones. Some original parts (not always the same ones) were reused in a mix and match fashion that emphasized expediency and timely construction over convention or commonality of design. The resulting cars exhibited an amazing and bewildering range of variation on their common theme. Some cars went through another rebuilding late in the 1930’s, when approximately 30 were modified into log cars. These cars were used on the RGS by the Motezuma and McPhee Lumber Companies. In the fifties, more changes took place when some of the cars were rebuilt into idler flats, and many more were made into pipe gons. This last group of changes, however, took place after the abandonment of the RGS and will not be discussed here. Allen Brewster’s excellent article on high side gondolas (in the August 1978 issue of Model Railroader) includes many detailed drawings of these cars and explains many of the major variations.

Today the cars have endured seventy more years of use, modifications, repairs and neglect. This is especially true of the paint, which on many cars is virtually gone. At the time of the RGS’s abandonment, however, the D & RGW still maintained its narrow gauge rolling stock in reasonably good condition. Many of the cars are considerably more decrepit today than they would have been when in use on the RGS. Unfortunately, studying a car today gives no hint as to how it was lettered when in revenue service. Only historic photos accurately show the painting and lettering of the cars, which also varied considerably.

The 1456, which is in Chama, New Mexico today, is a classic example of what makes the high side gondolas so much fun and so exasperating. If we tried to arrange the cars into "types," as Harry Brunk has done for the C&S equipment, many of the gondolas would be in a type by themselves, and others would be several types all at the same time. As an example, most of the cars have 10 stakes on each side, but some have only nine. If we decide to use this characteristic to classify the cars, then the 1456 would have to be in both classes, because it has ten stakes on one side and nine on the other. The stake pockets on the two sides are also different.

The rest of this issue will discuss the various details that make each of these cars an individual. Three cars will be presented, as typical examples, if there is such a thing, of the type of gondolas that would have been common on the RGS from 1925 through abandonment. There will also be enough information to model these three cars accurately. I will not go into any minor differences in the underframes, such as dimensional variations in the wooden parts, as this sort of thing is common in wooden cars and is usually not important, or modelable. The three cars discussed were chosen because they are typical and interesting, and because I have all the necessary information on them. They are the 1083 and the 1499, both of which are at Hall Siding on the Georgetown Loop Railroad, and the 1217, which is at Hudson, Colorado.


Detail Variations

It should be remembered that of the approximately 1200 gondolas originally built, only a few (perhaps 10%) still survive. Many of these cars have been extensively modified and are of limited value in the study of gondola characteristics today. Less than 50 cars probably exist today. With this limited number it is difficult to make definitive statements today concerning the appearance or grouping of certain types of hardware. Where trends seem to exist they will be pointed out, with the knowledge that if all the information on the cars were available, these "trends" might not be trends at all.

A case in point would be the wooden draft gear cars. These cars are a very small minority today, but were once much more common. These cars seemed to be the first ones chosen for modification and so many of the idler flat, pipe gon and log car varieties have this type of draft gear. So, while this type of draft gear is virtually nonexistent in the high side fleet today, during the time of the RGS they were much more common.


Stakes: Most everyone is aware that, because of the damage done by the rotary car dump in Salida, the top boards of many cars were replaced. The tops of the stakes were also commonly damaged by this device and were repaired by cutting them off flush with the top of the fourth board and splicing an extension to the side of the original stake that ran from the top of the second board to the top of the new fifth board. The extension was normally placed on the side of the stake closest to the middle of the car. This repair was done so often that by the late fifties, when the rotary dumper ceased operation, very few cars were without at least one of the "split stakes," as the repair was called.

Number of Stakes: Most cars had ten stakes on each side but as mentioned earlier, some had nine. Why, I don’t know. The variation comes between the queen posts where the nine stake cars have just one and the ten stake cars have two.

Stake Pockets: These pockets come in three different varieties. The least common is the original pocket which is similar to the pockets seen on flat cars. This pocket was supposed to have been removed and replaced with an upgraded and strengthened pocket consisting of a U-bolt, plate and regular bolt, but some cars never got the upgrade. The second kind of pocket is also an original type that consists of a U-shaped channel with a u-bolt at the top and a regular bolt through the bottom. The most common stake pocket is the one installed during the rebuild. This pocket consists of a flat piece of steel plate (dimensions vary) with a U-bolt at the top and a regular bolt at the bottom. Most cars have only one type but some have two. I have never seen three on one car, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Sides: As mentioned before, the top boards of these cars were very susceptible to damage. The gouges, splits, and divots change the appearance of each car considerably. Except for new stakes and top boards, the car body lumber usually wasn’t replaced during the rebuild, so the body usually exhibits many unused drill holes.

Side Support Brackets: These are a kind of hook for the long U-bolts that mount on the two side stakes at the needle beams and then pass down through the sides, through the floors, and end in a bracket below the needle beam. The brackets come in two major types -- the most common is a bent piece of barstock bolted to the stake. About a third of the cars have a similar but much longer piece that runs the entire length of the side stake. A small cast hook was used on a very few cars, and no hook at all on others, with just a notch cut in the stake.

Side Sill Bevel: This corner bevel is seen in most cars but again not all, at the lower outside corner of the side sill, where the coupler lift bars are.

Corner Plates: When the fifth board was added to the top of these cars, the old four-board corner plates that were original on some cars were augmented with the addition of a one board corner plate. This short plate was add to the top on the outside of the corner and to the bottom of the inside. Only about half of the cars conform to this design, however, and all kinds of corner plate combinations are present.

Inside Steps: In the same corners of the car where the grab irons go up on the outside there was a step installed on the inside. There are two types of steps -- one is a wooden block and the other is an "L"-shaped piece of steel plate.

Floor: A few cars have a flat floor, but most have a hump over each truck made by adding a second layer of boards. The size and position of this second layer varies from car to car and end to end. The 1082 which is now in Chama, New Mexico has a hump at the "A" end but not the "B" end. I don’t know the reason for the two styles; it is hypothesized that the second layer was added as a buffer to wear. When these cars were loaded with limestone at Monoarch most of the material was placed over the trucks, which is the same area where the double layer of floor boards were used.

Floor Patches: Because the gondola floors are horizontal unpainted surfaces, they are very susceptible to weather damage and rotting. Sheet metal, nailed to the floor, was one of the ways used to fix minor problems. These often oddly shaped pieces of metal greatly change the appearance of the car. This detail is especially important for model cars because the interior is so easily visible.

Side Patches: Sheet metal patches and occasionally wooden patches were used on the inside of the sides for the same reason as on the floor. I have even seen cars with some type of caulking used on the floor and sides. There was pea size gravel, a material that would probably drain through the smallest hole, still stuck to the caulking.

Bolsters: There are two types of original bolster that were retained if they were in good enough shape. The first bolster is a built up type very similar to the bolster found on boxcars and can be identified, even without looking under the car, by the flat pad of metal under the side sill and the two horizontally place bolts going through it. The second original bolster is a one piece casting and seems to be limited to the cars with the narrow rectangular striker plate. From the side this bolster is characterized by the two inch thick wooden pad between it and the side sill and no bolts through the sill. If the original bolster needed to be replaced, a cut down standard gauge bolster was installed. This bolster has a U-shaped pad under the side sill and a single bolt.

Draft Gear: The vast majority of the cars received a new steel coupler pocket, called the economy draft gear. There are minor differences in the economy draft gear configurations according to which type of bolster the car has. A very few of the cars kept their original wooden draft gear. These can easily be identified by the boxcar-like hexagonal striker plate that is used in this configuration.

Striker Plate: There are four different styles of striker plates, and each style comes with a whole group of other associated hardware. The first is the boxcar like hexagonal striker plate that is used with the wooden draft gear. The second is a thin rectangular shaped striker plate, 5-1/2 inches deep, that appears on cars that retain their original cast bolster. The third type is also rectangular but 8-1/2 inches thick. This striker plate seems to be used with the replacement cut down standard gauge cast bolster. All three of these use a typical D&RGW-type casting for the bottom of the break staff and a top support that bolts directly to the car side. Lastly, there is a trapezoidal-shaped striker plate that was used with the original built-up type of bolster. This striker plate uses a bent piece of bar stock as a bottom support for the break staff. These cars also have a kind of guide for the break staff, bolted to the end beam, and the upper support is often spaced out from the car side by a block of wood. The trapezoidal striker often has one of its "ears" broken, and occasionally this piece is replaced with a regular washer for the truss rod end. These four hardware groups seem to be well segregated with little or no mixing.


If we were to use any characteristics to divide these cars into specific types it would be the striker plate. This seems to be the only distinct grouping of characteristics that maintain its integrity from car to car.


Break Platform Support: Two types of triangular supports can be found under the break platform. One is a cast piece, which is by far the most common, and the other is a piece made from bent bar stock.

End Tie Downs: Most cars have two tie downs at both ends. These are made of flat bar stock welded to a large bolt or steal rod threaded at the end. The flat portions are bolted to the car ends, usually about three boards up. The rod portion is threaded through a hole in the end beam and has a bolt and washer on the bottom. These are usually on the outside of the ends but are inside on some cars, mixed on others, and nonexistent on still others, usually the wooden draft gear cars.

To visit one of the three gondolas this issue discusses click on a button...

Gondola No. 1083 - Gondola No. 1217 - Gondola No. 1499 - Return To Main Page

This is the end of Volume 3 of the Rio Grande Southern Technical Page. I hope to continue updating the page quarterly, so please come back to visit. Please feel to write me bdwhite@orci.com with any comments on the page, good or bad, or just to chat.