Monday, August 24, 2009

The Two Freight Houses

As part of the original construction of the line in 1909, the Western Pacific built two freight houses in Sacramento on R Street. Both were adjacent to 3rd street, and both were originally built with corrugated metal panels over a wooden stud frame. The house on the west side of 3rd was designated for incoming freight and the house to the east of 3rd handled outgoing freight. We know from Jeff Asay’s Track and Time that these roles switched for some unknown reason in 1932 and that the easterly of the two, the now inbound freight house, burned down in 1941. It was replaced the following year by a larger building of wood siding with an attached two story office (it’s the building in the foreground of my simplified sketch). This was a joint Western Pacific-Sacramento Northern-Central California Traction freight office. According to Stanley and Moreau’s The Central California Traction Company many of the clerical functions formally handled at the Sacramento Union Freight Station were moved to the new freight office by the mid 1950s.

From my own digging in the WP presidential files (in the care of the California State Railroad Museum library), I know that by the early 1950s, the easterly 96’ of the new freight house was leased for car loading operations by freight forwarders. There were three of them that operated a joint car loading operation in the new freight house: Universal, Merchant Shippers and Stor-Dor. A fourth forwarder, International, occupied an unknown, but likely equivalent amount of the ‘westerly end’ of the old freight house.

Freight forwarders, by the way, made their money by consolidating less than carload (LCL) freight and charging the public less than the LCL rate the railroad would have charged but more than the carload rate that the forwarders themselves paid.

There was a plan in early 1953 to consolidate and move the loading operations of all four forwarders to the old house and to provide more office space for them on the 2nd floor office of the new house. I’m not certain the plan was implemented fully if at all. The listing of industries on the line in WP’s original “167-E Circular”, which likely dates from 1957, lists the four forwarders in the same locations where the 1953 memo placed them. Another company document, the ‘Training Manual Maps’ (see Asay’s Track and Time which includes this document in an appendix), has a R Street page dated 1958 which labels the old freight house as solely occupied by Universal and no mention of forwarders in the new freight house.

Did things really change that much in one year? Are one or both internal documents inaccurate? I’m not sure I care for purposes of the layout since I’m modeling 1950 when things were still likely as they were in the clearly stated 1953 memo. They were also potentially at their messiest with WP LCL and 3rd party forwarder operations all mixed up in the two buildings. I wonder though, when a railroad begins to lease out space in its terminal facilities to forwarders, would they still bother with an inbound and outbound freight house for their own needs? Certainly the company documents I’ve seen of the 1950s don’t mention the words ‘inbound’ and ‘outbound’ when referencing the freight houses but rather ‘old’ and ‘new’ or ‘House No.1’ and ‘House No. 2’.

My current plan is to devote an entire wall of my spare bedroom layout to the two freight houses. In spite of my aforementioned doubts, I intend to switch them with the assumption that the WP still operated an inbound and outbound house for their own LCL business concurrently with the forwarders leasing space in August 1950. I figure there must have been a transition period when LCL traffic was increasingly going to the forwarders, but the railroad still retained enough traffic to warrant two houses in Sacramento.

This sketch of the number of car spot locations is probably a little ambitious for my available space, but the idea is to show that there could be WP LCL inbound spots (red) WP LCL outbound spots (yellow) and independent freight forwarder spots (blue). Some of the cars destined for WP inbound can have an additional move, once 'emptied', to WP outbound spots later in the same session or as a starting move in the next session.

Will this be ten pounds of switching in a five pound bag? Possibly, but it is a switching layout, and I think it would be easy enough to dial back on the complexity if needed.

There is no trace of either building on R Street now. They were both gone before I started studying the area. The old freight house was still around as late as the mid to late 1970s but otherwise I don’t know when it met its demise. The new freight house appears to have been leased to a trucking firm by the mid 1980s but ultimately the property was sold by the Union Pacific, (who merged with the Western Pacific at the end of 1982) in 1999 or 2000, and the site has the brand new CalPERS expanded headquarters on it now.


  1. Hi, Tom,
    I suspect that the freight house and freight forwarders will be a great place for switching. Like you mentioned, it's easy to adjust the number of cars to switch, or to increase the complexity by demanding particular door spots (or, if you're really mean, to forget to block the cars so that the switch crews need to do some sorting before they switch.) The big Del Monte plant on my layout has similar capacity- about 12 spots on two parallel tracks -- and it usually keeps folks busy for 20-30 minutes.

    My dad was a rate clerk at the WP Sacramento station in the late '50's; I asked him if he remembered the freight forwarders. He wasn't as familiar with the forwarders in Sacramento, but he remembers the freight forwarding companies in Portland a few years earlier really loved that he'd pick up the waybills from the GN on Sunday night and give them a heads-up on the cars about to arrive.

    He mentioned that the freight forwarders got lots of business when the ICC declared that their LCL traffic could qualify for its own "mixed freight" rate rather than needing to be broken up by commodity and tariff. Some shippers supposedly took advantage of this and shipped by forwarder when the tariff rate was less than the regular commodity rate for their items.

    He also remembers trying to convince management to give up on LCL freight when he was in the Main Office in the 1960's. In one case he remembers, a shipper had sent an LCL load via the WP to some small town in Maine. The boxcar wandered off to that corner of the country, but when it was interchanged with the last railroad, they balked because they didn't handle LCL business. They sent it back to the shipper rather than forward it to the consignee. The shipper was understandably irate, so my dad handed it over to one of the freight forwarders who got it there much quicker and cheaper than the WP.

    Anyway, yup, model the freight stations; they'll be great industries for your layout!


  2. Have you seen this?

    A classic detailed map of the Sacramento Water Front with the first 3-4 blocks of R street back on the 50s I think. The site this came from is full of great SN photos. Charles in Las Vegas formally from Sacramento. PS: Your photos of the freight houses circa 1975 are absolutely classic. If you have more of those please post them. They are great. I miss all those old R street tracks.

  3. Hi Charles! Thanks for the link. I actually have seen this map before. I believe it was Don Schmidt who posted that one originally. He combined, I suspect using a photocopier, two different maps into one to create that image. I don't think I've seen another map or station plan that covers both the river front and R street in that kind of detail.

    I may have a few more Robert Clark pictures that I can post. I have some others from archives about town that I do not have distribution rights to. But you can search the Center for Sacramento History's online pictures for "R Street" (include the quotes in the search) here I've found it pays to go back and run that search every so often as their collection grows and is digitized.