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Pumped Up! (continued)

The most important aspect of infrastructure on the railroad is, of course, the roadbed and track. Even in railroading's earliest days in the 1830s, it was necessary to constantly inspect the track for things such as loose spikes, damaged crossties or mis-aligned rails that could derail the train. Section hands--men charged with inspection of sections of track--were charged with keeping the main lines train-ready, and would walk their sections inspecting the track.

And when railroads were being built, the men who aligned the rails using the leverage from their long-handled shovels from the Gandy Shovel Company ("Gandy Dancers") needed an efficient way to travel to and from the work site at the ever-lengthening "end of the line."


Firing up a steam locomotive just to transport a few workers here or there, or inspect a few miles of track, was inefficient in the extreme. As railroads became bigger, it soon became necessary to have a more efficient way for section hands and Gandy Dancers to inspect the track or get to the worksite.

Soon, hand-operated cars were invented to address these problems. Some were tricycles, called "velocipedes" that could only transport one man.

Ward Kimball hams it up aboard his velocipede.

Some were similar to the four-wheeled handcars we know today.

An early handcar of the Civil War era.

Through the years, the basic handcar design became somewhat standard, and was made by a few companies until the advent of reliable internal combustion engines. A platform supported by four steel wheels supported a wooden A-shaped frame. In the middle of the frame was a pivot, and from the pivot extended a rod in either direction, which terminated in a "T" shaped handle. Up to four people could pump the handle, teeter-totter style. The handle was connected by a rod to a large gear wheel, which in turn powered the wheels of the handcar through the gear mechanism. Stopping was accomplished by stepping on a floor-mounted pedal, which would force wooden brake blocks against the wheels.

The handcar in its most-familiar form.

Eventually, self-propelled "speeders," powered by small internal-combustion engines, replaced handcars. Today, modern trucks equipped with railroad wheels that can be used effectively on both railroad track and paved roads, knows as hi-rail vehicles, carry out the jobs that were handled by handcars a century ago. While effective and efficient, they are nowhere near as romantic as the old-fashioned hand-pumped handcar.

Next: Walt gets his handcar.

Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve's latest book, the history of Disneyland's newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

2008 Steve DeGaetano

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