Photographer: Henry Henkelmann
Why would a manufacturing job have such a hold on me? I’ve told you it was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, that we welded with snow drifting across our work, that I was there at 2:00 a.m., 10:30 p.m., and all hours in between.
Because it was the coolest thing ever. We made stuff. We made big, impressive stuff that people would line up outside the fence to snap pictures of. Those rail cars we rolled out were known by rail buffs. There are models for sale online of cars I built. People are proud they made those cool little models and they should be. But I and a bunch of other lucky people got to build the real ones, the ones that go rattling past you at railroad crossings, the ones that shake the ground as they pass.
You know how one learns to see the world in terms of her or his profession or avocation? I was married to a man who made picture frames. When we went to the arts festival, he would tell me which frames his company had in stock and whether the art would have been better suited by the molding with the acanthus leaves rather than the ivy. God bless the poor soul in a car with me when a train is going by. I rattle with the train—naming off the types: centerbeams, hoppers, tanks, gondolas (high and low-sided). I look for defects: a delineator a bit off center, an unseated truck spring.
Do you know how railcars are attached to their wheels? It will enliven your next wait at a crossing. The wheels are part of an assembly called a “truck.” It consists of a bolster running perpendicular to two sidebeams. The sidebeams generally are set atop two axles, making each truck a four-wheeled assembly. The bolster has a centerplate—a hefty chunk of flat topped cast metal. A vertical rod is anchored to the centerplate.
Photo by Sean Lamb
The car itself is assembled separately, wending its way down the line. When it is essentially complete, aside from some brake work and other details, it is “landed” on the trucks. Each car has a centerplate on each end, corresponding to the centerplates on the trucks. Each centerplate has a hole in it, corresponding to the vertical rods on the truck assemblies.
We lifted the railcar by crane (just imagine!) and swung it around a 90 degree turn, positioning it gingerly over two truck assemblies waiting on a track. As a person maneuvered the car with a remote control and a rope, like flying a steel dirigible, another two people squatted by the trucks, nudging them a hair this way or that, until the rods in the trucks aligned with the holes in the car centerplates. Then the car would be gently set down, landing with a deep “clunk” on its wheels.
And then it would go on down the line to the brake shop, the paint shop, and to a crossing near you. No welding, no bolts, no Elmer’s glue, just 30-80 tons or more of steel held in place by gravity. And I got to watch that happen every day. Tell me that wasn’t a cool job.