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History and Use of the Railroad Handcar

Handcars came onto the railroad scene in the 1860's built by individual railroads in their shops. Early models used a hand crank that was spun to propel the car. These cars were dangerous and killed men. By 1887 most of these cars were out of service, but some railroads kept them around as they were still operable.

Crank handcar pre-1880 style. These hand cars proved to be dangerous resulting in the injury and death of workers.

Beginning in the 1880's, commercial versions were built by the Sheffield, Buda, and Kalamazoo companies. The cars weighed 500-600 pounds and could be handled by two men.

Handcars found at many museums are not authentic to the original designs. In the 1990's the growing handcar racing sport demanded new handcars for competition. These handcars use a chain and sprocket to propel the vehicle which was not of the era. In addition, these hand cars have a top platform that extends over non authentic 16 inch diameter wheels. Except for narrow gauge and bridge maintenance models, hand cars did not have a platform that extended over the wheels.

The handcar has a brake that is activated by a foot pedal. The brake was made of wood, though to increase its stopping ability it was often covered with a leather pad.

Handcars could be ordered from the manufacture with a larger or smaller gear ratio depending upon the steepness of the territory in which it was operated. In mountainous areas, handcars were not very useful as grades greater than 2% were difficult to traverse. Instead railroads used push carts with crews pushing the cars up the grade, and then riding them down for the return. Usually a couple of railroad spikes were kept on hand to brake the car as it traveled down the grade.

Push cart in service on mountainous territory.

Handcars took a beating, but were reliable and lasted for years with minimal servicing. One Sheffield brand handcar on the Texas and Pacific Railroad ran for 10 years on 1.5% grades with over 30,000 miles without a major rebuild.

This Sheffield Handcar had over 30,000 miles without a rebuild, Railway Age Gazette June 16, 1910

Handcars were mainly used by section gangs. They maintained a section of track that for mainline use was 4-5 miles long, or for branch lines was 10-12 miles long. Signal maintainers and track inspectors did not typically use a handcar as they used a smaller one man device called velocipede that carried one to two men for inspection and lighter duty work.

Working on the railroad in Colorado.

A typical gang consisted of six men who rode the car. Various court and congressional testimonies have indicated that handcars carried 10-12 men on occasion. In the Western United States the men usually consisted of five laborers of Native American, Mexican, Chinese, or African descent. The foreman was of European descent.

On the Rio Grande circa 1900. African American crew with European Descent Foreman. Notice this crew was made up of seven people. Denver Public Library

Handcars carried tools that included a spike removal claw, spike hammer, shovels, picks, track wrench, rail cutting chisels, signal flags, water, and oil cans. They had a small tool box in the gallows where smaller tools such as a hack saw, files, monkey wrench, and other small tools were kept. Some handcars also carried a long narrow wooden tool box on the platform. For night travel the handcar carried a white lantern to the front and a red lantern to the rear.

Handcars were prohibited from carrying rail and ties on the platform except during emergencies as they damaged the deck.

Circa 1890 Boon, Ohio handcar with crew and tools.
Claude T Stone Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Hazardous Work
Operating handcars was dangerous work. Many men were killed from collisions with unexpected trains that hit them from the front and the rear. It was standard procedure for a man to run ahead to curves and watch for oncoming trains. Some railroads prohibited their use during heavy fog.

In the early 1900's it became particularly dangerous as train speeds increased, offering little warning to remove the handcar from the tracks before an impending collision. With faster trains it became particularly important to position a man on the rear to watch for trains coming from behind.

There was at least one incident of a handcar killing a pedestrian crossing the tracks. In 1902 a handcar traveling 6 mph on the Boston and Maine Railroad struck and killed an inattentive pedestrian.

Typically a handcar was pushed to get it started and then four men worked the pump to get it to speed. The running speed of a handcar was about 8mph, though faster speeds of 15mph could be obtained running downgrade.

Set-off platforms were placed at intervals of 1/5 to 1/3 mile along the right-of-way. These set-offs were designed for the car to be removed and placed onto the tracks without removing the tools. In an emergency the crew threw the car off the tracks regardless of whether there was a set-off or not.

Six man crew circa 1890's. Note the large inventory of tools carried on this car. There is not a lot of space for the men.

Other Uses
During the 1890's, the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad rented a handcar to sportsmen for hunting and fishing expeditions when rail traffic was light.

Handcars began their decline in the first few years of the 1900s when the motorized speeder car saw widespread use. The problem with handcars was that by the time the crew pumped to the location they were physically worn out. The motorized cars moved faster and required fewer men to operate.

In 1911 Union Pacific retired the handcar from branch line service in Western Nebraska. Branch line track sections typically covered 10 miles, nearly twice that of mainline sections. Immediate labor savings became apparent. Between 1910 and 1915 the pace of handcar retirement could be compared to the pace of steam locomotive retirements in the late 1940's, early 1950's.

One interesting development was various companies offered conversion kits to convert handcars into motorized vehicles. The pump handle was removed and replaced with an engine and the various parts needed to proprel the car.

By 1920 most handcars had been replaced by motorized cars. Sheffield and Kalamazoo continued to advertise the cars in their catalog into World War II, but few were probably sold. Some handcars were left around yards and there are stories from railroaders into the 1970's of handcars relegated to corners of engine maintenance facility shops, only to be taken out for an occasional quick back and forth fun run in the yard.

Visit my image page to view several more photos of handcars in service.

Standard Sheffield Handcar circa 1890


Notes on Track, 1901
Railway Track and Track Work, 1891
Railway Track and Track Work, 1898
Kansas City Court of Appeals Record, 1919
Supreme Court of Rhode Island, Record, June 1906
Supreme Court of Illinois Record, October, 1907
The Railway Conductor, February 1911
Railway Age Gazette, June 1910
Railway Age Gazette, March 1912
Trainorders.com Discussion Forum, 2011

Sheffield handcar replica circa 1890. This handcar is available for motion picture production rental. See my rental page for more information.

Copyright 2011, Mason Clark