History Of The Rail Tank Car
by Jim Herron
With Lionel coming out with authentic Unibody
tank cars that are both realistic and "almost"
scale, I was curious about the history of
those cars. The size and paint schemes of
the Sunoco, Mobil and Chevron unibody cars
I have (next to my #455 oil field on a siding)
are quite eye-catching. I receive quite a
few positive comments from collectors and
runners about them. I'm still waiting for
an Esso or Exxon tank car from Lionel, but
I guess I'll have to get the one MTH is putting
out later this year.
Charles P. Hatch of the Empire Transportation
Company invented the rail tank car in 1865.
It was a flat car with wooden banded tubes
mounted on top, capable of carrying 3,500
gallons of crude oil on the Oil Creek and
Warren and Franklin Railroads in Pennsylvania.
Another inventor, Amos Densmore, built similar
cars around the same time for the Atlantic
& Great Western Railroad.
Shortly after that, railroads switched
to larger wooden tanks mounted horizontally.
Saddles bolted to flat cars gave the basic
look of tanks cars used by the industry
ever since. Empire Transportation Co. built
the first metal tank cars in 1869. Mounted
directly into wooden frames instead of flat
cars, these heavy iron cars solved the problem
of leaking wooden tanks and improved safety.
As steel technology improved, steel replaced
wrought iron making for lighter, but stronger
tanks. These and later design improvements
had a common goal - to increase transportation
safety and efficiency.
- 1865 - Wooden cars used for the first
time to serve the oil fields of Pennsylvania.
- 1869 - Cast iron replaces wooden tanks.
Capacity was about 3,500 gallons per car.
The railroads have about 52,000 miles
of track and it takes 8 days to go coast
to coast on the new Transcontinental Railroad.
- 1888 - Tank car companies supply tank
cars directly to the oil industry, instead
of the railroads. Capacities range from
6,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons.
- 1901 - Gushers at Spindletop in East
Texas bring the Lone Star State into the
oil industry in a big way and help lead
to development of rail lines to serve
the wells and refineries of Texas and
- 1903 - The tank car industry develops
safety standards for construction. Now
there are more than 10,000 tank cars in
operation and over 260,000 miles of track.
- 1915 - A classification system is developed
by the industry to ensure the right use
of the tank cars for the right products.
Now 50,000 tank cars serve the industry.
- 1920 - Welding technology replaces riveting
in tank car construction, enhancing the
safety of cars. There are now over 400,000
miles of track in the U.S.
- 1930 - Tank cars expand their use -
140,000 tank cars carry 103 commodities
other than oil to market.
- 1940's - During World War II every tank
car is used to transport oil for the war
- 1950 - Pipelines and trucks lighten
the load of tanks on railroads.
John D. Rockefeller called rail tank cars
his "secret weapon" in developing
Standard Oil, his small oil company, into
a monopolistic force in the industry by controlling
transportation. At the turn of the century,
Standard's Union Tank Line subsidiary built
tank cars to serve only Standard Oil refineries.
Rockefeller avoided Congressional pressure
on his monopoly by making Union Tank Line
a separate, independent company. It still
served only Standard Oil. After the Supreme
Court broke up the monopoly in 1911, Union
Tank Line began to serve other oil markets.
The company changed its name to Union
Tank Car Company in 1919 and developed new
construction and safety technology to serve
the growing petroleum market in the 1920's.
During the Depression, Union acquired thousands
of surplus tank cars and began leasing them
back to shippers, setting a trend in the
industry that continues today. A leader
in technological developments to increase
efficiency and safety in transportation
of fluids for over 100 years, Union Tank
Car is the largest tank car lessor in North
America (It is still controlled by the Rockefellers!).
One of the most interesting tank cars
manufactured by Union Tank Car is the 50,000
gallon "Whale Belly", the largest
ever designed. It can be seen in the yard
of the Galveston Train Museum. At the time
of its construction, the Whale Belly had
the capacity to transport 50,000 gallons
of liquefied petroleum, gas or ammonia.
It is 89 feet long, weighs 175,000 pounds
and rolls on 16 wheels. It was introduced
in 1963 and was in service for more than
20 years, on lease to major chemical companies
in the U. S.