Answer Man

Answer Man: Cattle cars went to their last roundup decades ago

Q. When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I remember seeing trains hauling cattle all the time, but I don’t recall seeing any around here recently. Do they still use cattle cars anywhere?

— H.B., of Cahokia

A. Like the animals they once hauled, most cattle cars had been rolled off to the railroad slaughterhouse by the end of the 1980s. And although train aficionados still might be shedding a tear or two at their passing, historians say most railroad companies likely were happy to see them go.

You might find that surprising considering they had been a staple of the railroad freight industry for well over a century. Almost as soon as the first trains began chugging along in the 1830s, animals were being herded onto freight cars and shipped to and from every new destinations in a rapidly expanding nation.

At first, animals were hauled on just about any car available, including open gondolas and crude boxcars with a few slats for air. But as trains covered longer distances, they realized the animals needed better accommodations, so in the 1860s, the first dedicated livestock car came along with a roof, slatted sides for air and a sliding door for easy access. Some even had a removable upper deck that allowed for the shipment of pigs, sheep and other smaller livestock, according to “Freight Train Cars” by Mike Schafer (available on Amazon).

It was a design that would not change dramatically for 120 years, although the wood construction was replaced by steel, food and water troughs were installed and pens were added to keep animals from trampling each other. Their capacity increased, too. Early cars could carry only about 10 tons, but loads had tripled by the early 1900s, according to Schafer.

For more than a century, this was the only way they had to get fresh meat to the masses. In “the good old days,” animals had to be butchered and processed close to where their meat was going to be sold. Other than walking a herd of cattle to a slaughterhouse, trains were the only way to get them there.

But that started to change in a big way after World War II. More meatpacking plants were built closer to where the animals were raised, which resulted in shorter trips — and reduced profits — for the railroads. With the construction of the interstate highway system, more cattle could make those shorter hops by truck. And, with the advent of refrigerated cars and the entire frozen food industry, it was much easier and economical to load and ship steaks and chops rather than live animals.

Indeed, shipping beef and pork on the hoof became an expensive headache for railroads. Even before the animal-rights movement came along in a big way, laws were enacted that required railroads to offload animals every 36 hours or so just so they could stretch their legs and recuperate. (Humans squeezed onto jampacked planes should be so lucky.) This, of course, required more time and more workers to handle the animals as well as the construction and maintenance of those animal rest stops.

And that’s not all, train historians say. Stock cars had to be placed directly behind the locomotive so that animals had the smoothest ride possible and that they could be tended to quickly. Such positioning also allowed the cars to be shuffled in and out of trains quickly. But this, too, resulted in more time, effort — and expense.

Still, some railroads tried to make a go of it, even changing with the times by adding innovative new cars. Union Pacific, for example, created HOGX cars — old auto-parts boxcars that were converted into tri-level cars for hauling hogs from Nebraska to Los Angeles for Farmer John Meats. But after Farmer John decided to produce hogs in California in the mid-1990s, the units were scrapped. A similar fate befell the Big Pig Palace and Steer Palace cars from the Ortner Freight Car Co., of Cincinnati.

As a result, virtually all cattle cars had joined cabooses on the scrapheap of American railroad history by the end of the 1980s. I’ve seen some bloggers wax poetic about Rhaetian/RhB Railway trains in Switzerland still transporting cattle to and from their summer pastures, but others say this practice may have stopped in 2008 or so.

Today’s trivia

You’ve no doubt heard of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., marches. But what role did J.D. and Ethel Shelley play in the civil rights movement?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In the fall of 1828, four sisters from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul traveled 1,500 miles from their convent in Emmitsburg, Md., to St. Louis. On Nov. 28, they opened the first hospital west of the Mississippi River — and what St. Louis claims to be the first Catholic hospital in the U.S. as well as the first run by women. Mullanphy Hospital was opened in a three-room log cabin that had been donated by local cotton merchant John Mullanphy. It also would serve as the official city hospital until a municipal facility could be built in 1846. Over the next two centuries, Mullanphy would go through several new buildings until 1972, when DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton broke ground. To see pictures, go to, search for “Mullanphy” and click on the second item in the list that pops up. For more fascinating local facts, don’t miss “250 in 250,” an exhibit commemorating St. Louis’ 250th anniversary that closes Sunday at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Admission is free.