by Jeff Johnson
The drop bottom gondolas of the Denver and Rio Grande Western 3-foot gauge system should rank well in any “most unique looking” freight car contest. Built by the National Car Company in 1904, the original cost records for the 700 and 800 series cars vary, but it is reasonable to say that they were approximately $930.00 and $995.00 (respectively). These 200 new drop bottom gondolas arrived in Colorado during a time period that saw a remarkable influx of new equipment for the D&RGW. The railroad endeavored to replace the aging 19th century rolling stock fleet, as many were still equipped with the newly outlawed link and pin coupling design.
Drop Bottom Gondola No. 888 at Sargent, Colorado, 1952, Photo by John Horan
The 700 - 799 series had sides that were 40” tall and were equipped with dump doors that operated via a mechanism located in the center of the car body. The 100 cars in the 800 - 899 series had the same dump door mechanism, but were equipped with tall racks designed for loading processed bituminous coal known as “coke”. Drawings and photos reveal that they initially stood almost eleven feet high. The cars were designed for a loading capacity of 50,000 pounds and sported a slightly longer and wider body than many of the 30-foot freight cars of the era.
The drop bottom door provided a time-saving unloading method compared to the usual, labor-intensive procedure. Instead of equipping workmen with shovels to muck out the car’s content, the lever system was used to open the doors thus immediately dumping the load on the ground. Various commodities could be carried in the drop bottom gons, but coal loadings were most common. Many coaling towers had elevated trestle style delivery ramps where the drop bottom gondolas would be spotted and workmen could simply open the dump doors to spill the contents into the coal bins. At facilities with the elevator bucket style of coal dock, a ramp was used that led up to an open grate where the coal would spill through and into the lower coal bins. The gons were “tailor made” for company service such as dumping ballast directly onto track roadbed during maintenance, as well as hauling cinders out of various engine service facilities. Handy they were!
After some rebuilding around 1918, the construction and quantity of the side boards became the main difference between the 700 and 800 series gons. Horizontal operating rods were placed on each side of the car, thus eliminating the center of car mechanism. Four dump levers with a ratchet and pawl were placed on the ends of these rods. Chains running from each of the twelve lower dump doors (six each side) rolled up over the operating rods when the doors were in the closed position. To open the doors, the lever would be rotated to a position that would release the ratchet teeth on the pawl, and the doors would dump the car loading on the ground or into storage bins in coal facilities.
In 1926, ninety-nine of the 800 series drop bottom gondolas were rebuilt at a cost of $176.98 each. On October 31, 1926, D&RGW Authority for Expenditure #2720 lists the rebuilt and/or added parts as steel center sills, end sill braces, needle beams, and other upgrades. In addition, the same AFE calls for the sides to be extended on all 99 cars to 46 inches.
Use of the drop bottom gons lessened over time due to declining rail traffic, deferred maintenance, and the abandonment of the Third Division. By November of 1970, AFE records listed the retirement of many of the 700 and 800 series cars. By 1981, the end of D&RGW narrow gauge operations was at hand as eighteen of the 800 series drop bottom gondolas were sold to the new Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Some still survive on the Silverton Branch, in private collections, and in Chama, New Mexico.
During the creation of this document we received input and material from a variety of people and places. We’d like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following:
“A Century + Ten of D&RGW Narrow Gauge Freight Cars, 1871 to 1981” by Robert E. Sloan
D&RGW AFE records courtesy of John Templeton, Boulder, Colorado
Photo and historical notes courtesy of Steve Swanson, Idaho Springs, Colorado
© 2010 by Blackstone Models.