A Typical Rock Car (p1)

the remains of a typical rock car – click on the image for a bigger view

As a thank you to all my loyal readers (and as filler until I can get that new site up and running), I thought I’d toss up a few new posts here on explorer. Enjoy!

The lifeblood of a mine was the railroad. On almost a daily routine, trains would pass back and forth between mines and mills pulling behind them long lines of rock cars filled with fruits of the mines labor. Some mines had their own dedicated freight lines, others used passing private railroads to do their bidding. While the large steam engines might have gotten all the glory, the grunt work was carried out by the dependable rock car.

The rock car was a daily staple along the rail lines between mines and mills. The standard rock car used along the Keweenaw was an open-top hopper, with discharge chutes along its underside. Hauling empty cars was a waste of precious resources, so these cars often served double duty – hauling copper rock one way and coal on the return trip. They were loaded from the top, and emptied from atop raised trestles where they would dump their cargo down into storage bins.

When mines closed, these rock cars were often quickly sold for use in other industries. Above you can see a long line of Copper Range rock cars awaiting their turn to be sold off for service in distance lands. Its because of these massive sell-offs that very little of these cars still exist today. Fortunately there was one mine that was never able to sell off all of its rock cars – and that would be the Quincy and its Q&TL railroad.

Sitting along the old right-of-way atop Ripley hill are a line of seven of these old rock cars. (click on the image above to see the BIG IMAGE) The cars are in varying degrees of intactness, ranging from mostly intact to nothing left but the wheels. To make things worse, local fraternities took it upon themselves to graffiti them up, and a few have seemingly caught fire. But using some imagination and careful observations, we were able to put together a composite look at what these cars might have once looked like.

The typical Q&TL rock car was the narrow-gauge open-top hopper built by the Chicago firm Wells-French. The railroad had over 119 rock cars in stock by the time Quincy closed down – the majority of them of the hopper variety. These cars were built from wood, and had sloped floors at their ends. These sloped floors fed the ore into the discharge chute at the bottom of the car. On each side of the car was a set of controls, which were either used to apply the car’s brakes or open and close the chute doors. (I’m not sure which) The chute consisted of a pair of wooden doors attached to a central steel beam running through the center of the car. The doors appear to have opened down and inward towards the center of the car. Lets look at a few details…

The side walls of these cars consisted of 4 planks, attached to a series of 7 vertical support posts. The support posts are attached to the car’s floor by a series of iron brackets – one of which you can see here. This one is missing its post, which is what we typically found along these old cars. The metal “staple” you can see holding the bracket down is attached to another post on the car’s inside wall – which is directly attached to the car bottom.

Along a couple cars we could make out these foot holds at the car’s backside. I don’t know if this is a standard feature, or it was just on the more modern cars. We only found this on two cars, without any sign of it on the others. Also interesting is the metal hook just to the left of the foot hold – not sure what that’s for either.

Here’s a closer look at the mystery controls. I features these the last time I wrote about these cars, and had assumed then that they were controls for the doors. There is an identical (but mirrored) set of controls on the opposite side of the car as well, kitty corner to this one. On old photos of these cars you could make out valve wheels attached to the iron bar seen here. If these are brake controls they would be very hard to operate if the car was moving, and most rock cars we have seen photos of have the brake controls along the car’s stop. But if these are door controls I have no idea how they work, since they aren’t attached to the doors at all. In fact the doors are a good 4-5 feet further up the car from here.

We’ll take a closer look at those doors and the car’s underside tomorrow….

to be continued….

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  1. Well, I don’t want to leap ahead again, so I’ll comment. That fitting on the side of the car did indeed open the bottom doors. The end of the shaft had a wheel on it, the wheel on one side did one door, while the wheel on the other side did the other door. The doors opened to the middle. They were hooked by chain to the shafts. I would imagine the fitting was a locking device to keep the doors locked shut, looks like a ratchet type device.
    I have in my cold hands right now, a brass model of the car. So when I used my 5 finger crane and turned the car over, rather than crawling around in the dirt, I could see this detail. The hand brake was at one end of the car and the car did have air brakes added

  2. What I hate with this is watching these cars rot away, there was a whole string to the north of the #2 shaft also. I remember taking pictures way back with one of my brothers. We also went into the boiler house behind the #2 shaft and took some photos of the hopper cars sitting on top of the trestle from underneath. Now I have to look and see which cars I have photos of, there was probably more wood left then

  3. Gordy…

    Thanks for clearing it all up for me! I had thought from the beginning that the controls were for the doors, but I could never figure out how they would work. (I also thought that opening a door would be a on/off type of control verses a rotary adjustment type of control). The rods are still there, but they no longer are connected to anything. Thanks big time – I’ve been fighting over that detail for months (ever since I took the photos!) Of course, now I’ll have to change the diagram…

    Those rock cars are in bad shape that is for sure, due mostly to the fact that a road runs just a few feet from them. The cars at the boiler house are in better shape i think, so hopefully they’ll be removed and refurbished at some time.

  4. It was probably a on/off proposition opening the doors, I am sure the weight of the rock popped those wide open when it was released. Closing would probably be easier though with the ratchet type closure

  5. I came across a drawing that showed the air brake rigging on the side of the car as opposed to underneath. Also it said “the cars were not turned when in service.”

  6. I was a trackman for Conrail for a few years.We built a new section of side track two miles long one summer.After the ties and rails where laid they backed a train in with cars loaded with ballast.We had to tie a rope to the bottom doors to keep them from just swinging open and dumping the whole load.Wonder if that is what that hook was for?Dangerous work as we had to slide a tie under the car to catch the back wheels to smooth out the ballast,all this was being timed by radio to the engineer.Had to get the doors open just right and the tie in place while the engine had already started moving and you could here the cars snapping getting closer and closer as you were trying to get the tie in place and get out from under the train.

  7. The cars in the second photo are Copper Range “jumbos”, which were older wooden rock cars modified with extensions for coal service.

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