Southern Pacific Handcar
Purpose: Hand operated track gang cars were primarily used for track and signal maintenance from the 1860’s to the 1950’s by crews, called section-hands or gandy-dancers, who would load their tools and lunches onto the deck and pump to an area of the railroad needing work.
Original Owner: Southern Pacific Railroad
Builder: Sheffield Car Company of Three Rivers, Michigan
Built: Estimated to have been constructed between 1910 and 1930
History: Handcars came onto the railroad scene in the 1860’s built by individual railroads in their shops. Early models used a hand crank that was spun to propel the car but these cars were dangerous.
Beginning in the 1880’s, commercial versions were built by the Sheffield, Buda, and Kalamazoo companies. The cars weighed 500-600 pounds and could be handled by two to four men.
In the early 1900’s, use of 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 over a 2 to 5 mile section. As motor cars replaced the handcars, section gangs worked longer and harder. Although most handcars were retired by 1910, they still served in yards and terminals where travel distances were shorter and their simplicity worked well. In the 1970’s a few handcars were still in service, but they completely disappeared from the railroad scene by 1980.