Railroad Hand Cars

By Richard Sheaff

Three-wheel and four-wheel handcars were—and are—work vehicles which have long had great appeal to popular imagination (remember that escape in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? ?). There are numerous sources of information and many interesting collectibles out there for those so inclined. George S. Sheffield & Company (oversize trade card below) termed their product a “velocipede hand car”. Michigan farmer Sheffield invented that light (140 lbs ) hand car in about 1877; it was propelled by a combination of one-man hand-and-foot power.

Besides hand car (or handcar) and velocipede, these vehicles were variously known as pump trolleys, jiggers, pump cars and draisines. Motor-powered versions were known as speeders.

This (below) looks to be a Sheffield velocipede hand car . . .

Hand cars were not the only Victorian means of transportation called a velocipede: the Bradford velocipede seems to have been the recumbent bike of its era . . .

Railroad hand cars came in many models and configurations . . .

Workers ca1890, Boon, Ohio ( Claude T. Stone Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan ) . . .

WWI era, Romania . . .

A magic lantern slide image, ca1895, taken in British India . . .

Draisine was also the term for early walking proto-bicycles, the “first commerially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine commonly called a velocipede, nicknamed hobby-horse or dandy horse” (Wikipedia), invented by German Baron Karl Christian Ludwig Drais, in 1817. He dubbed it his Laufmaschine ( running machine ) . . .

The draisine forerunner (no pun intended) of the bicycle enjoyed some popularity and spawned other similar devices; below is one such ( Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg, Germany ) . . .

The image below is from an Anthony stereoview, taken along the roadbed of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad, at Lewiston Narrows.

This restored hand car is in the Nevada State Railroad Museum . . .

Hand cars are nowadays employed in recreational and museum usages around the world, and some may still be found working on the railroad.

( Photograph by Harvey Henkelmann )

Outstanding information about hand cars can be found on the excellent web site of Mason Clark, a California high school student (!) at: http://www.railroadhandcar.com/