Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Small modeling project: Caswell gondola

Among the most distinctive cars in the Santa Fe freight car fleet were the Caswell gondolas. It is obvious that Santa Fe really liked this design of drop-bottom or GS gondola, as they bought class after class of them from 1905 to 1927. Moreover the cars lasted well, and photos of them exist from the 1960s. And being a distinctive prototype, they make great models.
     But this is an SP modeling blog, I hear you muttering. Indeed so, and I don’t think most SP modelers would want more than one or two of these cars; but they sure do show up in photos of SP yards and trains. Empty ones would have been returned to Santa Fe rails by the most direct connection, rather than being reloaded in SP territory, but I have photos of them loaded with both coal and sand on SP rails in California. So I wanted to add one, yep, one, to my fleet.
     Part of my motivation is that InterMountain has produced a superb model of this car design. (Just looking at one of the “ready-to-run” [or RTR] versions, with all its complexity, may make some modelers go pale when thinking about building a kit for this car.) The Caswell I purchased was in RTR form, and I immediately sat down with Richard Hendrickson’s “bible” on the subject of cars like this: Richard H. Hendrickson, Santa Fe Open-Top Cars: Flat, Gondola and Hopper Cars 1902-1959, published by the Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society, Midwest City, OK, 2009.
     I quickly found I needed to do some work on the model. I guess I could subtitle this blog, “another case where RTR is not ready,” or words to that effect. Let me explain. When delivered, the cars looked like this (a Santa Fe photo I got years ago from Frank Ellington):

This exact appearance and lettering were how my InterMountain car looked in its box, so obviously it was presented as an as-built car of 1920. But over the years, a number of things changed on these cars, most notably the lettering. In 1938, Santa Fe discontinued the use of the ampersand in their reporting mark, and in 1943 also discontinued the use of periods between the initials. Dimensional data also changed and was simplified between 1920 and the 1950s.
     In addition, in the 1930s and 1940s Santa Fe applied reinforcing members to the top chord of these cars, on the second panel from each end. So a typical car like this would look like this by my modeling year, 1953 (the photo, by Col. Chet McCoid, from the Bob’s Photo collection, was taken in Texas in 1952):

I set out to make these changes on my model. Richard’s book contains a bunch of additional examples of later lettering arrangements, which did vary somewhat among various cars, probably changing a little from year to year.
     I used an old Walthers freight car data set to letter the various dimensional data items, and a 9-scale-inch alphabet for the “ATSF” lettering. Then I used styrene strip,  scale 1 x 6-inch size, to mimic the top chord reinforcements. With lettering done and the styrene applied, here is how the model looked.

I then painted the reinforcements (white in the photo above) with boxcar red, weathered the car, and then made repaint patches over the weathering, so I could add an appropriate reweigh date and repack stencil. Anyone not familiar with reweigh dates might want to look at my recent article in Railroad Model Craftsman on reweighing, or better yet, at the corrected version presented in an earlier blog post, at http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2011/03/reweigh-article-from-rmc.html.
     This gives me a corrected model of a distinctive Santa Fe freight car, and one I know showed up regularly on the Coast Line. I will probably construct both a sand  load and a coal load for it.
     So why am I telling this story? Is this car that important? No. But I think the story does illustrate two important points: it’s always wise to check with the many great prototype resources out there to make sure your model is as correct as you want it to be; and RTR most definitely does not always mean “ready to put on the layout.”
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,
    Point 3, it is sometimes a good idea to have a favorite, off-line, unusual freight car in the mix because it just feels right and you have the photos and data to shows it fits.


  2. Very good point, Tom. And it's a point worth making in the context of Gilbert-Nelson ideas too. Obviously smaller railroads have such small freight car fleets that the odds of any SPECIFIC one showing up become minuscule. But COLLECTIVELY they add up to something more substantial, which means that SOME oddball or exotic railroad's car will and SHOULD show up in your trains.

    I have a very few of these kinds of cars and may add more, with the strong proviso that they are only occasionally operated. The same rule applies to other eye-catching freight cars, like depressed-center flat cars with transformer loads, or magenta Chateau Martin wine cars, or gondolas with large pressure vessels. I do strive to model the "typical" as far as possible, but Tom is right that it has to be leavened with a little bit of the truly unusual. I should say, though, that to me the ATSF Caswell gondola does not fall into that category.
    Tony Thompson