Repairing the wreck damage on West Side Lumber 297

Repairs to the fire damaged and broken side sill underway. July 23, 2013.
A closer look at the damaged sills. Notice the 2×8 reinforcement on the side sill and the copious amount of rot damage. July 23, 2013.

By the summer of 2013, the time had come to begin work on #297. The first order of business was to deal with the most pressing issues – strengthen the right side and intermediate sills and get the car sitting correctly on its “A” end truck. The car was pulled out of its carport and a high lift “Handyman” jack was used to bring the sagging right side sill back to a more or less level state. Once the sill was straight, a couple of ½” carriage bolts were run through it vertically to pull the split back together. A 16’ long 2×8 (long enough to run from body bolster to body bolster) was then bolted to the inside of the sill to re-enforce it. The work was repeated on the right intermediate sill and the jack was lowered. While these repairs certainly are not strong enough to hold up in any type of service, the car now sits straight and level and is capable of supporting itself.

WSL 297’s “A” end truck pulled out in preparation for repairs to the body bolster. July 24, 2013.

The next project was to repair the “A” end body bolster enough to get the car to sit correctly on its trucks. The body bolster on the West Side flatcars is wood, and of a design dating back to the 1870’s. The bolster itself is a 10” X 4 ½” timber that runs across the width of the car. All six of the car’s frame sills rest on the bolster so that the weight of the car is carried by them all. The center bearing is bolted through the body bolster and the center sills and the bolster is strengthened by two truss rods that run from one end of the bolster to the other, over the center sills. The impact that #297 suffered at the end of its time on the West Side had pushed the truck several inches towards the center of the car, breaking the center bearing casting, bending the centerpin, and turning the body bolster behind the pin into splinters.

With the truck removed, the damage to the body bolster and center bearing became readily apparent. July 24, 2013.

The first step in repairing the damage was to get the truck out from under the car, which was accomplished by muscling a set of 50-ton railcar jacks (50 tons refers to the jack’s lifting capacity, not their weight though sometimes I am not sure about that) over to the car and placing them under the ends of the body bolster and lifting the car. The relatively light weight of #297 meant that the ratchets on the jacks could be turned by hand and lifting the car up enough to roll the truck out took less than a minute. The West Side’s design of having the truck’s centerpins stick up through the deck of the car, so they could be removed from the top without doing any other work, greatly sped up the process as the car only had to be lifted about 6 inches to roll the truck out, as opposed to the 18 inches or more needed on a car where the pin stays in the truck or can only be removed from the bottom of the body bolster. Of course the bend in 297’s centerpin meant it took a bit of persuasion from a railroad spike puller to get out, but the time saving aspect of the design was still readily apparent.

The 2 ½” diameter center pin, that holds the truck in place under the car, was supposed to be straight…….. July 24, 2013.

Once the car was up in the air, the truck was rolled forward until the center bearing was just below the draft gear at the end of the car. #297 was then lowered until the truck was carrying some of the car’s weight, thus providing a measure of safety as the car was supported by both jacks and the truck. Once under the car, it became apparent that the correct repair would be to replace the entire bolster timber. Another West Side design feature, having the bolsters truss rods made as three pieces held together by pins, would have greatly simplified the process had I chose to do it. For the reasons cited earlier (“A restoration plan for WSL 297”), I elected to replace only the damaged section. Removing the broken center bearing casting proved easy as the nuts turned freely and the bolts, while bent, required only a minimum amount of tapping before dropping free.

Removed from the car, the center bearing and bolts that hold it in place clearly show the effects of the collision. July 24, 2013.

The portion of the body bolster behind the centerpin and between the center sills had literally been turned to splinters by the wreck impact and could mostly be removed by hand. The sides were cleaned up with a reciprocating saw and a replacement piece, made of three modern 2×4 chunks sandwiched together to match the bolsters 4 ½’ thickness was temporarily held in place with screws. Prior to assembling the three pieces, a semicircle was cut on their edge to complete the hole for the centerpin (the other half of the hole was in the undamaged portion of the body bolster).

Before they could be reinstalled, the center bearing bolts and the centerpin had to be straightened. This was accomplished by heating them with a torch until they were red hot and then beating the bends straight with a four pound sledge hammer, using a nearby switch frog as an anvil and heat sink. While the ¾” bolts straightened fairly well, the 2 ½” thick centerpin was only able to be beat back to a rough approximation of straightness. Not perfect but a vast improvement as it actually dropped back into its hole without the use of a sledge hammer.

With all of the damaged wood cut out, the body bolster is ready for repairs to begin. July 24, 2013.

Unlike other narrow gauge cars that I have worked on where the center bearing bolts drop through from the top of the car, the West Side ran the bolts up from the bottom, with the nuts and washers being atop the center sills. A bottle jack was used to hold the center bearing in place while the bolts were installed. My oldest daughter Clarissa held the bolts in place while I threaded on the nuts and tightened them. The broken center bearing was not repaired and was reinstalled as two separate pieces which interlocked to hold each other in place once the bolts were tightened.

Some grease was applied to the center bearing bowl on the truck and the car was then lifted back up so that the truck could be rolled back under it. Once the truck was rolled back under the body bolster, the centerpin was put back into place. This showed that the center bearing on the car was out of alignment with the one on the truck by a couple of inches, which was not surprising given the damage. The solution was to use a come-a-long to pull the carbody over until everything was aligned. The car was then lowered all the way onto its truck and for the first time in over 50 years, everything was lined up as it should be.

With the first phase of repairs complete, #297 was rolled back under the carport to await the next work session. Up next will be repairs to the end sills, stabilization of the rot damaged areas of the side and intermediate sills using epoxy, and finally tightening the truss rods.

A bottle jack was used to hold the center bearing pieces in place while the bolts were lined up. Note the new wood repair to the body bolster. July 25, 2013.


With the repairs completed, WSL 297 was set back down on its truck. For the first time in over half a century, the truck was where it belonged, directly under the body bolster. July 25, 2013.

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