Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Route cards, Part 18: further examples

 As the series number in the title shows you, I have been writing about route cards for quite some time. If you’d like to view any of the many examples I have previously shown, the easiest way to find them is to use “Route cards” as the search term in the search box at right.

A quick review: freight cars until relatively recently always had a small tack board on each side, for the purpose of attaching route cards. Though they were not required to have a particular size, there was a recommended size, which after World War II was 5-1/2 x 9 inches, ordinarily wood (for background on this, see: https://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2011/12/route-cards-6.html ). Car-side locations varied from railroad to railroad.

The cards attached to these boards were immensely varied, conveying information about the outgoing destination, or train, or yard track, for a loaded car; inbound destinations or trains for empty cars; information about cargoes; needs for cleaning, inspection, or repairs; and indicating the class of car interior quality, for suitability for various specific cargoes. All these and more have been shown in the many examples I have already shown, and will continue to show.

These were affixed to cars by yard clerks, walking the yard tracks (likely with a clipboard in hand, listing all the cars on a track along with information on what was to be done with each car). A variety of tools was used to attach the cards. A widespread choice was the hammer stapler, with which you only had to swing the head against the target to drive a stapler into the target.

Here’s a photo I have shown several times before (Cotton Belt photo), just to refresh memory. You can see the card already positioned on the stapler (the staple points stick out, so the card can just be impaled into place on the stapler head). This clerk is about to attach the card to the car’s placard board. There is also a route card board on this car door, just visible behind the clerk’s face.

These cards were small, so they could fit (or almost fit) onto the 5-1/2 x 9-inch route card boards. They are accordingly too small in HO scale for their lettering to be visible, so one can model them (as I do) with small squares or rectangles of white, manila, or colored paper.

Recently my friend Michel Litant loaned me a collection of cards retrieved from freight cars in the late 1960s. Some are dated, many are not. The sheer variety is impressive — and to me, interesting and enjoyable as windows into prototype practice. I show a few of these below, and will be showing more in future posts.

First, a classic kind of route card, 3 x 4 inches in size, directing a car, MKT 91710, to be switched to the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern. It’s a Great Northern card, identifiable only by the small emblem at upper right.

For a second example, again a classic type, a Norfolk & Western card, this one 3 x 5.25 inches, for car L&N 100494 simply to move eastbound (probably meaning  “any train”). No indication of location, except written in, “Cherry St.” which may have been a particular yard.

A third example is interesting because it wouldn’t usually be stapled to an exterior board, but is of the type that would commonly be included with the conductor’s bills. A New York Central System form, in use by the Chicago River & Indiana Railroad, it’s for car NYC 100069; the destination written in is Boston. It’s 4 x 9 inches in size.

These three are pretty conventional, but here’s a type of card I’ve never seen before. It is a card from the shipper (Agway), not a railroad, and evidently was attached to identify cargo. It’s actually a tag intended for a 100-pound container (noted at top), but was stapled on the outside of a car. It’s about 3 x 5 inches.

Probably that’s enough for one post, but these are interesting example of the kinds of route cards that might be encountered on the prototype. An O scale modeler could hope to suggest some of these letterings in model form but in HO there are definite limits to what can be done. I’ll return to that point, and to further cards, in future posts.

Tony Thompson


  1. Cool MN&S card. "ptCgl" was Port Cargill in Savage, Minn. Still a busy place today. Smaller ships were built there too during the war, oddly enough.

  2. Thanks for the added information. A detail I would not have known!
    Tony Thompson