Sunday, October 10, 2021

SP car ledgers donated to CSRM

 Many readers of this blog (or of my five-book series, Southern Pacific Freight Cars) will know that Southern Pacific kept large book-style ledgers with detailed information about the repair and upgrading history of its entire freight car fleet. The first set of these ledgers was apparently begun at the very start of the Associated Lines era, circa 1900 or 1901.

Those early ledgers have been preserved at CSRM (California State Railroad Museum) for many years. They are extremely useful to the historian because they include many quite old cars that were still in service in 1900, though in many cases, not for long.

That set of ledgers was superseded in 1920, very likely at the end of the period of Federal control during the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) in March of that year. The new ledgers picked up all the existing cars, entries probably transferred right from the old ledgers, and continued forward well into the 1950s, until they were superseded by computer records. The latter, of course, do not survive, as all the archival tapes, tape drives, computer systems, and even software are long gone.

The ledgers begun in 1920 have now been donated to CSRM, to join the pre-1920 set. These large books have often been called “ledgers” (as I do here), both by those who used them, and by historians, though they are properly called (I am told) Freight Car Records. All consist of pre-printed page sheets, 14 x 17 inches in size, set up to record the origins of each car and its subsequent alteration or major repair, one line for each car.
What survived at the end of the SP are eleven volumes of these records. I will show a list of the titles of them shortly. You can see in the photo below that the pile of all 11 of them is about two and a half feet high; that’s a 12-inch ruler.

You can also see that they vary in external condition, though inside they are all pretty clean. The next photo below shows a single book, probably an above-average appearance, alongside the same 12-inch ruler. All are like this in that they have heavy cardboard covers, and most have printed canvas spines. Most of the books are on screw posts; a few have been counter-nailed closed. 

This particular book has the title on the spine, as do most books. In case it is difficult to read, the title describes hog fuel (wood chips), hopper, logging, and tank cars.

This set of eleven  books falls into two groups. The first group are the ones begun in 1920, and includes all cars existing at that time. Entries in these books continue into the late 1950s, as I will explain later.
The second group came into being after World War II, when SP first began to apply six-digit car numbers, at first to a few car groups, and a little later, to all existing cars (except stock and tank cars). The second group of books was created to contain records of existing cars under their new car numbers, as well as all new cars with six-digit numbers.

Here are the titles of the first group:
   Single Door Box Cars, classes CS-33 through B-50-14
   Single Door Box Cars, B-50-15 through B-50-27
   Stock & Auto
   Flat - - Gondola
   Hog Fuel - - Hopper - - Logging - - Tank
   Pass Cars
   M of W  - - Cabs
Here are the second-group titles:
   New Single Door Box Cars
   New Double Door Box Cars
   Spec Book (Specially equipped cars, box, gondola, flat etc.)
   New Gondola - - Hopper - - Flat

As a note, the “Spec Book” in the list above refers to cars having specialized equipment, and all the number groups of cars so equipped (types as listed) are shown above.
Next, I want to show the typical interior of these books.Below is a sample interior of the single book shown above. This spread happens to be part of the entries for logging cars, in this case the skeleton log cars of the 99000 series. These are the standard 14 x 17-inch pages.

These pages, like all pages in these books, are pre-printed forms (Form 4589) that were used for all car types. Each page has a heading, containing blanks for many aspects of car construction and original equipment. Below the heading are lines for individual car entries, and the column headings are originally blank, chosen later to record such things as truck changes, brake gear revisions, and upgrades or modifications. All such entries give the exact day the work was completed, and the shop where it was done. Visibly, these are nearly all handwritten.

I want to show more of the ways the book interiors look, and will return to that in a subsequent post. But the important message of this post is that these books are now preserved at CSRM.

Tony Thompson


  1. This is wonderful. I am always happy when records can be preserved in museums or archives. Did the UP make the donation? Or were they in private hands?

  2. Certainly not UP. I will say a little about the preservation process in the following post.
    Tony Thompson