Southern Pacific USRA Gondola Build Pt. 1

An upside (and maybe to some a downside) to working in 1:48 is the amount of detail that can be added to our models. This was part of what drew me to Proto:48 in the first place - particularly being able to very accurately model trackwork. At 1/4" to the foot, things such as rivet heads, wood grain, and even the texture of rust start to become achievable and - one could argue - more important for a realistic-looking model. 

The absence of detail becomes more notable in larger scales - especially for trained eyes. 

With this in mind, I recently pulled this Intermountain USRA composite gondola kit off of the shelf. I bought the car intending to just build it and decorate it for the Southern Pacific - the State Belt's largest connecting railroad. The more I looked at the kit, however, the more I saw potential to experiment with capturing the sort of detail found in the incredible O scale models by folks like Norm Buckhart, Jim Zwernamann or Gene Deimling. I figured if I was going to have to paint and decal it, I might as well enchance the details on this already nice kit. The grabs could be changed out for starters, uncoupling levers added, maybe some more detail on the underframe as it is very visible on this model... things started to snowball from there. 

Like most projects, I started with research. Lots and lots of research. Freight cars are not one of my strong suits - at least not those for post-war US railroads. But it is something I look forward to learning about as I strive to build accurate rolling stock for North Point Street. Fortunately there are several good sources of information readily available on USRA and these gondolas, including drawings. The usual suspects turned up useful results, including the magazine index, and the Steam Era Freight Cars page.

The composite gondola was one of several standard designs produced by the USRA in the first world war era. Few western roads were assigned any of the cars when they were built, which I thought took the SP off of the list. I had almost settled on modelling a Frisco rebuild when, quite by chance, I was looking over some State Belt photos. My now trained eye spotted what looked to be an SP version of this car. 

Some more digging revealed that the Southern Pacific did indeed own 250 of these gons. A February 2000 Rail Model Journal article notes that the El Paso & Southwestern series 11251-11500 USRA gondolas went to the SP in 1924 when it bought the EP&SW. The cars were put into SP series 45904-46153. Even better, while a few of these SSC-built cars were modified in the '30s with solid floors, most of them retained their original configuration until they began being quickly removed from service in the late '40s. According to a post by Tony Thompson in the Espee, because the cars were not originally an SP design, they did not receive the usual Common Standard class designation. This made them perhaps a bit more difficult for me to research, but for the fact that they were built to the USRA standard and changed very little over the years.  

Hiding in plain sight is SP 46111, one of the USRA gondolas inherited from the EP&SW in 1924. Image from the Bancroft Library collection/ Online Archive of California.

I have yet to discover if the SSC-built cars would have had any notable differences from other builders. 
Steam-era freight car guru Ted Culotta has a great slide deck from a 2018 St. Louis RPM presentation on the USRA gons. It provides several nice detail images of various cars but none of the EP&SW. The cars featured 50-ton Andrews U-section trucks, KD ("split K") brakes, top-operating Type D couplers, Carmer uncoupling levers, and a lever-and-rachet vertical staff handbrake (even if many drawings show a brake wheel). 

Many of the SP's cars were apparently assigned to log service in Oregon later in their lives. From this I found another good photograph of not one but TWO gons in this service which will aid in decalling the car in particular, and which confirm the brake lever. My model will haul occasional loads of lumber to North Point Street, and take scrap loads of iron from the Simmons mattress factory. The cars were rare, which sort of breaks one of the rules I follow for building a freight car roster for my layouts (see my posts on that subject starting with this one), but the availability of the kit, in this case, outweighed the other factors. 


USRA Composite Gondola drawings from the "Car Builder's Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1919." 

Armed with data and drawings from the 1919 Car Builder's Cyclopedia (now available digitized for your reference use) as well as a handful of articles and blog posts I was ready to set to work on the car.