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Seeing Kansas By Rail

Rail car tracks East of Rapids
View from the middle of RR Bridge East of Blue Rapids Kansas. The rail is 90’ above the surface of the water.

By Randy Rundle                       

With literally dozens of ways to tour Kansas, to see and experience all of the diverse beauty the state has to offer, most people go by car or truck, fewer by bus. But for a select, and lucky, few there is the Fairmont Motorcar.

view from rail car
View from the windshield along the rails between Baldwin City and Ottawa Kansas

Motorcars were used by the railroad companies to transport workers to and from a job site along the railroad tracks. Some of the larger “motorcars” hauled as many as six to eight men with their tools and equipment, and were often referred to as “gang cars” because it was how work gangs traveled to job sites. The work gangs made the repairs to the railroad track, which included replacing railroad ties, repairing switches, replacing spikes, fixing broken joint bars, and most anything else necessary to keep the track in good working order.

In addition to the large motorcars, smaller one- and two-man motorcars were used by railroad track inspectors and signalmen to inspect railroad tracks and signal crossings. The track inspector looked for any obstructions along the tracks, downed trees, blocked crossings. The track inspector also listened to the sound of the wheels going across the rail joints, a change in the sound often meant a damaged joint bar or a missing spike. He would note the location and  create a work order.

The signalman inspected each of the signal crossings to make sure the warning signals were in place and in good working order. He made repairs as necessary. All of these jobs were performed on a daily basis.

Missiouri Pacific Rail motor car
The Missouri Pacific Railroad purchased this particular motorcar new in 1948. It was assigned to the Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot in Yates Center Kansas where it remained in service as a track inspector’s car until it was retired in the spring of 1974.

Many motorcars, such as the one pictured here, were sold for scrap to local salvage yards in the early 1970’s with the introduction of stricter safety laws. The aluminum bodies of the now- obsolete motorcars were recycled. The cast iron engines were broken up with a sledge at the request of the railroad so they could not be reused or sold for parts,

This motorcar arrived at a salvage yard and was due to suffer the same fate as the rest that had gone before it. But, somehow, a local farmer convinced the salvage yard owner to sell him the engine to pump water. The salvage owner agreed on the condition that he take the whole car, remove the engine himself, then bring back the rest to be recycled.

The farmer who had the best of intentions never got around to removing the engine from the motorcar so instead the motorcar sat in a barn for the 30 years. When the local church came around asking for a donation to their upcoming charity auction, the farmer had just the thing.

The motorcar sold at the auction in almost the same condition as when he had bought it some 30 years before. The farmer’s terms were clear, no guarantee, and no idea if the engine ran or not: it would be up to the buyer to buy a battery and find out.

I bought the motorcar at the auction and, after buying a battery and doing a little tinkering, I got the engine to run. I have since overhauled the engine and most of the mechanicals and also rewired the electrical.

I left the body in its original condition with the original railroad identification markings on it. Very few of these motorcars have survived in their original working condition. These motorcars had a very hard life on the railroad; they were used in all kinds of weather by all types of operators and were often overloaded with people and tools, or both.

The engine of this type of motorcar only developed 8 horsepower and with the weight of the car itself being in the neighborhood of 600 pounds, plus the weight of an operator and passengers, tools and materials, was quite a load. Add to that, a few hills and a head wind and it is easy to see how these engines got quite a workout. 

Working under these conditions, that they worked at all is quite a testament to their reliability. These motorcars used the same basic engine design with minor improvements from the 1920’s up thru the early 1970’s when the last of them were made.

I have permission to ride a number of abounded railroad tracks, not that many really. But, most are very scenic and I get to experience a part of Kansas that few see. Some of the old railroad lines travel between small towns and more than a few have railroad tracks that pass within a block or two of a town’s main street.

A motorcar’s unique engine sound draws a lot of attention as it rolls into a small town. With most of the local cafes on the main street, it’s an easy walk to a café for lunch. Conversations with locals almost immediately start up about the motorcar and its history.

In most every small Kansas town there is at least two or three retired railroad workers who immediately recognize the sound of a motorcar. It brings a smile to their face when they hear that long forgotten sound. They are a wealth of knowledge not only about the motorcar, but the history of the local railroad that helped build Kansas.

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Last Updated April 6, 2009
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