February 16, 2018

Freight operations in the early railroad era

The following extract is from a journal called "The Railway Agent and Station Agent: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Interests of the Freight Agent and Ticket Agent."The article describes the need for,  and the early adoption of, "Fast Freight" operations on railroads. It starts with a fascinating description of railroad freight operations in the early rail era, such as a civil war era line,  or even a military line too, except in that case the customer would be a military department.

 Written by request for The Station Agent by W. W. Chandler. Agent,  Star Union Line Chicago
December 1889.
 In the early days of railroads, thirty to forty years ago, each corporation assumed that its cars must not get away from home, nor go beyond its own termini in either direction, lest they never get back. To insure such results, the projectors of different roads that were to be links in a long chain connecting far distant points deemed it essential that there be a break of gauge at each terminal point, thus necessitating a change of cars, not only for freight, but for passengers, as well. To illustrate the old method and primitive system of carrying on transportation business let me say for example that what is now so well known as the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad whose line under one management extends from Buffalo to Chicago was thirty five years ago composed of several corporations with a full set of officers and agents and a full equipment of rolling stock for each. There was the Buffalo & Erie, the Cleveland Painesville & Ashtabula, and another connecting Erie and Ashtabula whose corporate name is not recalled making three distinct roads between Buffalo and Cleveland a distance of only 184 miles. Then came the Cleveland & Norwalk and the Norwalk & Toledo the Toledo & Adrain, the Adrain & Cold water if I mistake not and the Coldwater & Chicago.  It is the writer's impression that the three roads between Toledo and Chicago were consolidated before the track was completed to Chicago and that the name was then changed to the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana. The two roads connecting Cleveland and Toledo were also consolidated after which the name was the Cleveland & Toledo railroad. The Cleveland Painesville & Ashtabula and the road connecting Ashtabula and Erie became one road quite early in their existence and the name assumed was the Cleveland & Erie.

  Subsequently the Buffalo & Erie and the Cleveland & Erie were consolidated not however without strong opposition and a desperate struggle. Old timers will remember the “Erie War,” when the good people of that ambitious and enterprising little city actually took up arms and fought the change of gauge, because, forsooth, such change would ruin their market for pie, pea nuts, and popcorn which a change of passengers in either direction afforded, and besides would dispense with the services of a large force of men who were employed in the transfer of freight from one road to the other.

 Despite this determined opposition, a uniform gauge between Buffalo and Cleveland became an accomplished fact. Still “breaking bulk” both at Buffalo and Cleveland was, by all parties, deemed inevitable. Merchants and shippers of the present day, who have commenced business within the last quarter of a century can have but slight conception of the trials and tribulations incident to the old-time method of conducting railroad transportation, hence the writer may pardoned for going back to the period between 1850 and 1860 by way of illustration.

  John Smith, a Chicago dry goods merchant, visits New York to purchase what he terms his fall stock which, when completed, aggregates fifty packages, boxes, and bales. The several houses where his purchases are made are instructed to ship them via the New York Central route and he insists that all must be delivered to the Hudson River Railroad or to the Albany steam boat, on a given day and he waits over to see that this is done and to secure his bills lading. At Albany his goods go into a warehouse or depot necessarily, whether they go by rail or by boat.  At that time,  through freight meant freight passed through half a dozen sets of hands and was transferred and re-transferred, carted and re-carted, coopered and re-coopered at every break of gauge --and fast freight did not exist;-- in fact, it was about the slowest thing of our fast American life.  Slowness was not the chief fault of the old system either --it was unsafe, as we shall see.

  Smith's fifty packages are now at Albany. Of course, they have had some rough handling, even up to this first point transfer. Possibly some of the contents of the boxes are broken and some of the bales of sheeting have received “hook holes” that are not perceptible, but which the consignee discovers to his sorrow when he removes the canvass wrappers. At best,  some of the boxes are shattered and require re coopering for which of course a charge is made beside most of the fifty packages remain in the warehouse overnight.  Night watchmen are only human and may have outside confederates, and no better chance for petty pilfering and pilfering that is not petty can be imagined than these points afford.  To pry open the cover of a box and abstract dozen pairs of shoes, a few hats, or a bolt of cloth, and then skillfully re nail the box is but the work of a few moments. And say the perpetrators who will ever be the wiser. Possibly, ten of Smith's fifty packages are loaded into car for Buffalo the same day of their arrival at Albany, together with goods for some other western merchants.  Meanwhile, another train has arrived from New York, also from Boston, each train containing numerous consignments which are dumped upon, and all around, Smith's forty packages.  The next train loaded for Buffalo is full before any of Smith's goods are reached.  The next day, and day after, the same thing is repeated.  The first ten boxes, billed Albany to Buffalo with the weight of the entire and the cost from New York to Albany of the fifty, is sent forward in the charges column of the way bill with notations, " Includes weight and charges on forty packages to follow." Perhaps by the third or fourth day after their arrival Albany, fifteen of the forty packages are loaded and westward billed.  Part of a lot weight and charges ahead except cooperage and cartage.  By this time, our first ten boxes have reached Buffalo, where after experiencing some more rough handling, consequent re-coopering, possibly five of the ten are for Cleveland carrying the weight freight and charges of original fifty. These five packages experience the same treatment at Cleveland for a day or two, when three of the five billed to Toledo carrying on the way bill the weight and charges for the entire lot. After another delay at two of the three are loaded billed, and started for Chicago with the weight and charges for the entire consignment, except the constantly accumulating charges for cooperage and cartage on the forty eight packages that are struggling after the two, which have finally reached their destination.
Meantime, Smith has arrived home, and for several days has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of his goods. He is overjoyed at last to receive a printed notice from the station agent at Chicago, which with blanks duly filled reads thus,

  John Smith Esq
Dear Sir  - Goods consigned to your address have arrived and are ready for delivery. Charges $394.82 Please send certified check or current funds.

 Gladly, Smith complies, but when his drayman returns with barely two packages of his entire purchase, poor Smith is disgusted, yes, for a while he is swearing mad, but is somewhat mollified when scanning his freight bill he finds noted conspicuously,  “Part of a lot balance will be along soon.”  He learns later, that “soon” means various dates extending through a period of two months for the forty packages that were left at Albany are subjected to the same delays, the same cartages, the same cooperages, and the same scatterment, as were the first ten two of which we have followed to John Smith's store,  Ultimately, Smith receives his fiftieth package which has been astray In Cleveland it was accidentally loaded in a car that was bound for Cincinnati, and after considerable delay in that city, it is finally billed to Cleveland – “ Free stray -- has been robbed.”

 When Smith has completed checking contents of his fifty packages with his invoices he finds that the vacant spaces observed in some of the boxes or spaces, where rags and rubbish have been substituted for original contents represent shortage, and he knows from former experience that shortage is but another name for stealage. By the aid of his invoices, he is able to make out a bill at New York cost price for what goods are minus, and he finds the aggregate to be $297.45, and the damage in transit on the goods received amounts to the further sum of $46.25 He presents these bills made out in due form to the agent of the delivering road,  who after a calm perusal of the several items says, “Mr Smith, I am really very sorry for you but I am confident that the stealing was not done on our road because our men are all picked men honest and reliable, and as to the damage from hook holes, I know we are not responsible from the fact that our freight handlers are never allowed to use hooks in handling bales. Some road east of our is responsible. I am sure we are not. If you will leave your papers with me as soon as I get a little leisure I will start a tracer for each lot and if possible will locate both the stealages and the damages. The bills amount to $343.70. If Smith gets his money in a year the chances are four in five that he has expended in attorney's fees and traveling expenses $417.99. This is not an overdrawn picture. but a fair sample of what may have happened to any considerable consignment of dry goods shipped in spring or fall when western merchants purchased their stocks twice a year. not as they do now a days ordering by telegraph day by day as they need the goods.
 While everybody grumbled at the state of things herein depicted., everybody was obliged to ship freight in this way over one or the other of the then three existing routes between eastern seaboard cities and prominent western points. The same system, or rather lack of system, prevailed on each, except that the Pennsylvania route very early adopted an iron rule which no clerk dared disregard to the effect that each package must be weighed separately, and the weight as ascertained by receiving clerk's scales, must be marked thereon with brush, and paint, then and there and in billing the separate weight of each package be they few or many must be entered on the way bill and that each package must reach destination carrying only its own legitimate charges not charges on packages to follow.  Of course, this involved more clerical labor, but it was right while the other plan was unjust. The extra labor paid the company well in largely increasing patronage. 
This matter of cooperage and cartage or a charge therefor became so much the regular thing, that way bill clerks or manifest clerks as some people call them to this day entered such charges mechanically or from force of habit, and sometimes the absurdity of such charges was really amusing to everyone except the victim the consignee who was obliged to pay all charges, however, they might have occurred before he could get his goods. Two samples of such absurd charges will suffice. One was the case of a careless or absent minded clerk who entered on his way bill,” $2.00 cooperage on a live bull.” Another equally ambitious and a promising clerk charged $3.00 cartage on a donkey that had been led ten rods from the station of one road to that of another.
 In those early days locomotives for new roads that were being built for the western states were mainly constructed at Schenectady NY and Taunton Mass. They were of whatever gauge the roads for which they were ordered might happen to be, but could not run on their own wheels over the several gauges intervening between the place they were constructed and that where they were to be used.  Still they must be transported somehow and the question was how. In this emergency Mr. Wm A Kasson of Buffalo said to the locomotive builders. “Give me the monopoly for transporting your locomotives for a term of years, and I will invent a way to do it,” which proposition was gladly accepted, and Kasson caused to be built several strong fiat cars and a set of trucks of different gauges to fit them. Then when a locomotive was to be moved, say from Schenectady to Chicago, Mr. Kasson sent one of his men with one of his able bodied cars, under which were trucks of 4 ft 8 4 inch gauge that being the width of the New York Central road. The engine was loaded thereon, and the car with its load was hauled to Buffalo. There the car was jacked up, the trucks removed and others of 4 feet 10 inch gauge substituted for the run to Cleveland, and so on to destination, changing trucks where ever a change of gauge demanded it. The man in charge paid the several roads their local rates and collected from the company owning the engine not only what he had paid for hauling his car, but also a liberal price for his own services, the use of car, and the necessary machinery for doing the business. Thus, Kasson kept several men and several flat cars constantly and quite profitably employed.

Observing the defects in the system of transporting dry goods, groceries, hardware, etc. over long routes from east to west, Mr Kasson conceived the idea of having an agent and a few laborers as freight handlers stationed at each transfer point between New York and all prominent western cities to promptly transfer the contents of one car to another thus avoiding the delays and risks incident to unloading into freight depots. He placed an agent in New York to solicit business and to issue bills of lading on this plan. This agent contracted with shippers at a rate say 50 cents per 100 pounds $10 per ton above the sum of the several local rates of the half dozen different roads traversed, and merchants were glad to avail themselves of this improved method, whereby the cartage, cooperage, and stealage nuisance was abolished, and were glad to pay the extra price. This was called Kasson's Despatch and was the first institution which the writer ever heard denominated a Fast Freight Line. Kasson's only investment in the scheme consisted of office rent and the salaries he paid his men, he paving the roads their respective local rates and the $10 per ton extra left him a liberal margin as clear profit. The cars carrying Kasson's Despatch goods were furnished by the respective roads, and were not run on any faster schedule than were the regular freight trains of such roads. In fact, constituted a part of each west bound freight train, and the only thing that entitled such cars to the term Fast Freight was the fact that goods were promptly transferred to other cars at transfer points, and they were promptly dispatched therefrom. But, the great point gained was safety, and besides what started from New York as a car load arrived at destination as that same car load, albeit the packages had occupied several cars en route.

 You can read the rest of the article this link.

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