While today the handcar is viewed as a novelty, beginning in the 1880s and into 1900s it was the utility truck for section gangs that maintained more than a hundred thousand miles of track that was in place at that time. The common handcar we are familiar with today came onto the railroad scene in the 1860s. Handcars were used by track maintenance crews that were known as section gangs.
A typical day began with the crew taking the handcar out of the section house where the handcar was stored overnight. They loaded their lunches and tools onto the deck and pumped to an area of the railroad needing work. Along the way they lifted the car on and off the tracks to avoid oncoming trains that had priority over the handcar. It was dangerous work with unexpected trains occasionally surprising section gangs. Maintenance duties included tasks suck as leveling track that may have sunk, replacing ties that were rotten, and repairing drainage issues that may arise. In the instance of a derailed train, they worked to get the train back on the rails and to repair the damage as not to delay other trains.
By 1905 the handcars declined as railroads replaced them with motorized versions known as motorcars. While handcars were inexpensive and reliable, the problem was the physical exertion required to operate them. Railroads found section gangs preserved energy for the return trip back to the terminal. When the handcars were replaced, section gangs worked longer and harder. Further savings were realized when railroads found that section gang territories could be lengthened to ten miles. Previously a handcar gang was only responsible for 2-5 miles. By 1910 most handcars had been replaced by motorized speeders. Although most were retired, handcars still served in yards and terminals where travel distances were shorter and their simplicity worked well. In the 1970s a few handcars were still in service, but they completely disappeared from the railroad scene by 1980.
For most people, the existence of the device is limited from viewing Hollywood movies. Many silent films from the silent era featured handcars. One notable film with a handcar prop is the 1926 comedy film, The General starring Buster Keaton. A short handcar clip is displayed here.
The film is loosely based on a true Civil War event. While the film was a box office bomb when released, it has since been re-evaluated. Today, it is considered one of the greatest American films ever made.
In 1882, another type of handcar known as the velocipede was developed to enable inspections and other light duties across the railroad. Velocipedes were used by railroad workers that did not carry a lot of tools and typically worked by themselves. The car was especially well suited for surveying, leading the United States Government to purchase a fleet of velocipedes for the National Geodetic Survey that mapped the Country in the early 1900s.
Velocipedes survived in greater numbers for a much longer period of time. Their simplistic, lightweight design allowed them to be used in rail yards and stations. A station agent could quickly place the car onto the track, and work the mechanism to the end of a siding for the purpose of lining a switch for an approaching train. Modernization efforts in the 1970s led to the closing of most stations, leading to the demise of the velocipede. The photo below, courtesy of the Western Railway Museum in Rio Vista, was taken near Oakland, California in the 1960s. The railroad worker is responsible for maintaining the vast number of switch lanterns that were in use during that period. A few years later, the century old activity of lighting turnouts with lanterns had closed, ending the need for velocipedes. We use a modernized velocipede for our proposed handcar touring activity.