The Lifespan of a Boxcar Floor

When wooden railroad cars were the industry standard, it was generally accepted that the cars had a 20 to 25 year lifespan. A major rebuilding could extend the service life of a wood freight car, such as in the early 1920’s when the Denver & Rio Grande Western rebuilt its fleet of 20 year old narrow gauge freight cars, many of which saw service for another 45 years. In general however, such major rebuildings were the exception rather than the rule, most wood cars soldiered on through their life with varying degrees of maintenance until they were retired somewhere around their 25th birthday.

Smaller railroads, especially those whose cars generally never left their home railroad, were often able to eke longer lives out of their wooden cars as they did not see as many miles as the cars on a major railroad. Such was the case with the Colorado & Southern narrow gauge, which operated freight cars built between 1898 and 1910 until the end of operations in 1943.  C&S 8027 was on the older end of the spectrum, having been built in December of 1898 and being retired in late 1938 after 40 years of service.

While C&S 8027 was never completely rebuilt, it did receive regular maintenance and the occasional new part during its service life. While the frame and internal wall structure are original 1898 factory items, much of the car’s exterior siding was replaced around 1930, the side doors appear to have been newly built around 1930 and the floor shows evidence of being replaced at least three times during the car’s time in service.

The floor of a boxcar is subject to quite a bit of use and abuse, especially the area by the side doors. Every load that the car carries is placed on the floor and many items are drug across it going both in and out of the car.

Thus the question, what is (or was I suppose) the lifespan of a wooden boxcar floor? Based upon the evidence in C&S 8027, the general answer would seem to be about 10 years. Before the latest round of work on 8027, I had never really considered this question, but then the car provided the answer.

In order to replace / reattach the needlebeams, I had to remove the floorboards above them to get the old bolts out. (The needle beams are attached to the frame of the car by bolts that are dropped through from the top of the frame sills before the floor is installed. These bolts were cut flush with the bottom of the needle beams during the scrapping process and were thus not reusable.) 8027’s floor consists of full dimension 2” thick tongue and groove pine boards that run the full width of the car. When the car was built, the flooring was installed before the exterior or inter siding was applied, thus to remove the floor it is necessary to either remove the lower boards of the interior siding to get the old floorboards out and the new ones in or cut the floor boards into parts. Not wanting to take any more of the car apart than I had to, I chose option “B”.

When I pulled out the floorboards, I was greeted with an interesting sight; below the floor, in each sill, were three bent over nails, pounded flat. The floorboards are held in place by being nailed to the sills of the car’s frame. The hard wood of the sills tends to hold onto the nails better that the worn pine of the floor, so the nails usually stay in place in the sills as the floor is pulled up. (this was the case with the boards that I pulled). As the nails are hard to remove, it would appear that the C&S car shop crews bent them over flat each time before installing the new floor.

The bent over nails included one square nail (which I am guessing is from the original floor when the car was built, and two wire nails (assumed to be from subsequent replacement floors), which would indicate that the floor presently in 8027 is the car’s fourth. Given that 8027 lasted 40 years in service, it can be extrapolated that the service life of a wood boxcar floor on the C&S was 10 years. (The floor presently in the car is quite worn and was most likely ready to be replaced when the car was retired.

One of C&S 8027’s intermediate sills can be seen with the floorboard removed. Notice the three bent over nails from the previous floors in the car as well as the standing nail that was holding the current floor in place. March 26, 2019.
A look at the interior of C&S 8027 just behind the side door. Notice how the lower wall board has been cut out and replace with a piece of wood cut at an angle. Removal of the board was required to replace the floor and the angled board is most likely the C&S car shop’s replacement for the removed wall board.

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