Atchison’s Army Boxcar; History of the Knock Down Fleet

The Atchison Railroad Museum’s “Knock Down Fleet” boxcar alongside the Santa Fe freight depot in Atchison, Kansas. February 3, 2017.
My latest restoration project is a former U.S. Army boxcar at the Atchison Railroad Museum in Atchison, Kansas. Built of plywood and really intended to last only a few years, this Cold War relic has survived for over sixty years, nearly 50 of which have been spent outside, uncovered, with no maintenance.

Before getting started, let’s take a look at the car’s history.

Experiences in World War II showed the U.S. Military that railroads played an important part in moving supplies around the various theaters of operation. In some cases, the needed railroads were nonexistent. In other cases, the railroad may have been there, but all of the equipment was destroyed or damaged. During the war, the United States embarked on major railroad projects in Iran and Iraq (used to move supplies to Russia), took over the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, and built equipment for use on various railroads (much of which went to Europe to rebuild the rail system damaged by six years of fighting.).

After World War II, as tensions with the Soviet Union rose into what became the Cold War, the thoughts of U.S. military planners turned again towards a major land war in Europe and Asia. Remembering the role that railroads played in WWII and the delays caused by not having any equipment available to operate them, the U.S. Army’s Transportation Corps undertook a plan to develop a fleet of equipment suitable for use on railroads around the world.

The equipment fleet was envisioned as being adaptable to the multiple different gauges of track and different coupling systems found around the world. In addition, the equipment needed to be easily moveable, easily assembled, and easily adaptable to different roles. Also, given the short time span it was expected to be in use, the equipment was to be built “as simply and economically as military standards permit”.

In the early 1950’s, designs for what would become known as the “Knock Down Fleet” were finalized. The basic car was to be a 40-ton capacity flatcar that could be converted into a gondola or boxcar as needed through the addition of prefabricated ends and sides. Planners envisioned that the cars would initially enter service as flatcars and then be converted to boxcars and gondolas as the theatre of operations stabilized. The cars were designed so that the frame provided all of the car’s structural integrity. The gondola and boxcar sides were made of thin (3/4”) plywood and metal braces, and were not designed to support any of the car’s load. (In standard railcar construction, the walls of a gondola or boxcar are designed to support the car along with the frame, allowing the frames of these cars to be constructed much lighter than the frame of a flatcar.)

Designed to fit European clearances, the cars were narrower and shorter in height than standard U.S. railcars. The cars came with fittings for both European chain and bumper couplers and the standard U.S. knuckle couplers and trucks that could be adapted to standard (4’ 8 ½”) as well as the broad gauges found in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

By the mid 1950’s the “Knock Down Fleet” consisted of over 11,000 locomotives and freight cars stored at various Army depots around the country. While the locomotives were stored intact, the cars were stored as they were intended to be shipped – disassembled, in “packs” of ten. Frames, with the wood floors installed, were stacked on top of each other in groups of ten. Parts, such as trucks, brake systems, sides, etc., were also packed together in groups with enough parts to assemble ten cars.

Thankfully, the envisioned need for the “Knock Down Fleet” never materialized. By the 1970’s, the equipment was viewed as surplus and the Army began to sell it off. The locomotives were relatively easy to sell, and many found homes on short lines and industrial railroads as well as on various U.S. military bases. The cars were another story though. Their small size, light capacity and “flimsy” construction (they were, after all, only built to be used for a few years, as opposed to the 40-year lifespan that most railroad cars are designed for) made them hard to find a market for. Forty-ton capacity, European-sized cars with wood sides and solid bearing axles had no real place on American railroads of the 1970’s that had used all steel cars since the 1920’s and were transitioning from 50 to 70-ton capacity cars with roller bearings.

Many of the “Knock Down Fleet” cars were assembled into boxcars with standard knuckle couplers and found use at various military installations, usually as covered storage. One of the recipients of these boxcars was the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant located in Johnson County, Kansas, south of the town of De Soto. The Sunflower Plant had a large rail network on its grounds, and the cars most likely saw some use on the plant’s railroad. (If the Atchison Museum’s car is any indication, the cars saw very little use – its wheels and couplers show almost no wear whatsoever.) At the Sunflower Plant, the cars received a coat of yellow paint over the standard Army olive drab. As best as can be determined, the cars at the Sunflower Plant were not lettered or numbered.

Built in 1941, as the Sunflower Ordnance Works, the Sunflower Plant occupied over 10,000 acres and was the largest smokeless gunpowder plant in the world when it was built. After World War II, the plant was placed on standby status, resuming production during the Korean and Viet Nam wars. It last was in production from 1984 to 1992. In 1998, the entire plant was declared surplus and the government began selling off its land and buildings in 2001.

Following the last shutdown of the Sunflower Plant in 1992, the “Knock Down Fleet” boxcars were deemed surplus and sold for scrap. The Atchison Museum’s car was brought to Atchison at that time. Another car was moved to the Abilene & Smokey Valley Railroad in Abilene, Kansas, and the bodies of two cars are known to have gone to a private party. All of the other cars are presumed to have been scrapped at that time.

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