model train set on track

History Of The Rail Tank Car

e*Train Issue: Apr 2002   |   Posted in:

by Jim Herron With Lionel coming out with authentic Unibody tank cars that are both realistic and “almost” scale, I was curious about the history of those cars. The size and paint schemes of the Sunoco, Mobil and Chevron unibody cars I have (next to my #455 oil field on a siding) are quite eye-catching. I receive quite a few positive comments from collectors and runners about them. I’m still waiting for an Esso or Exxon tank car from Lionel, but I guess I’ll have to get the one MTH is putting out later this year.

Charles P. Hatch of the Empire Transportation Company invented the rail tank car in 1865. It was a flat car with wooden banded tubes mounted on top, capable of carrying 3,500 gallons of crude oil on the Oil Creek and Warren and Franklin Railroads in Pennsylvania. Another inventor, Amos Densmore, built similar cars around the same time for the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad.

Shortly after that, railroads switched to larger wooden tanks mounted horizontally. Saddles bolted to flat cars gave the basic look of tanks cars used by the industry ever since. Empire Transportation Co. built the first metal tank cars in 1869. Mounted directly into wooden frames instead of flat cars, these heavy iron cars solved the problem of leaking wooden tanks and improved safety. As steel technology improved, steel replaced wrought iron making for lighter, but stronger tanks. These and later design improvements had a common goal – to increase transportation safety and efficiency.

  • 1865 – Wooden cars used for the first time to serve the oil fields of Pennsylvania.
  • 1869 – Cast iron replaces wooden tanks. Capacity was about 3,500 gallons per car. The railroads have about 52,000 miles of track and it takes 8 days to go coast to coast on the new Transcontinental Railroad.
  • 1888 – Tank car companies supply tank cars directly to the oil industry, instead of the railroads. Capacities range from 6,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons.
  • 1901 – Gushers at Spindletop in East Texas bring the Lone Star State into the oil industry in a big way and help lead to development of rail lines to serve the wells and refineries of Texas and Oklahoma.
  • 1903 – The tank car industry develops safety standards for construction. Now there are more than 10,000 tank cars in operation and over 260,000 miles of track.
  • 1915 – A classification system is developed by the industry to ensure the right use of the tank cars for the right products. Now 50,000 tank cars serve the industry.
  • 1920 – Welding technology replaces riveting in tank car construction, enhancing the safety of cars. There are now over 400,000 miles of track in the U.S.
  • 1930 – Tank cars expand their use – 140,000 tank cars carry 103 commodities other than oil to market.
  • 1940’s – During World War II every tank car is used to transport oil for the war effort.
  • 1950 – Pipelines and trucks lighten the load of tanks on railroads.

John D. Rockefeller called rail tank cars his “secret weapon” in developing Standard Oil, his small oil company, into a monopolistic force in the industry by controlling transportation. At the turn of the century, Standard’s Union Tank Line subsidiary built tank cars to serve only Standard Oil refineries. Rockefeller avoided Congressional pressure on his monopoly by making Union Tank Line a separate, independent company. It still served only Standard Oil. After the Supreme Court broke up the monopoly in 1911, Union Tank Line began to serve other oil markets.

The company changed its name to Union Tank Car Company in 1919 and developed new construction and safety technology to serve the growing petroleum market in the 1920’s. During the Depression, Union acquired thousands of surplus tank cars and began leasing them back to shippers, setting a trend in the industry that continues today. A leader in technological developments to increase efficiency and safety in transportation of fluids for over 100 years, Union Tank Car is the largest tank car lessor in North America (It is still controlled by the Rockefellers!).

One of the most interesting tank cars manufactured by Union Tank Car is the 50,000 gallon “Whale Belly”, the largest ever designed. It can be seen in the yard of the Galveston Train Museum. At the time of its construction, the Whale Belly had the capacity to transport 50,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum, gas or ammonia. It is 89 feet long, weighs 175,000 pounds and rolls on 16 wheels. It was introduced in 1963 and was in service for more than 20 years, on lease to major chemical companies in the U. S.