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Freight car chalk marks

July 25, 2016

The above image, from Steam in Northern Ontario, shows a pair of eastbound CNR F-7s meeting Mountain 6066 on number 3 at Oba, Ontario in late 1951. It’s horribly backlit, but what I want to draw to the attention of modelers is the scrawled “Oba” on the right hand end of the gondola car immediately behind the diesels. The cab units are in the process of making a set off at Oba, an interchange with the Algoma Central Railway.

If you are among the 5% of model railway hobbyists who consider themselves to be serious scale modelers, you have assembled at least one resin freight car kit. If you are a student of steam era freight car operations, you will know that yard men, regardless of railroad, chalked up cars to aid crews in switching operations. This is covered in detail in Steam to the Niagara Frontier. And if you are privy to what is available in various scales, you will know that decals for these essential chalk marks are offered by Champion, Sunshine Models and others

But for the Canadian steam era modeler, the commercial chalk marks may be of limited value. There may be the odd generic mark which refers to an industry or something, or perhaps you just want something to appear on the side of the freight car, regardless of what it says. The thing to know about CNR operations is this: chalk marks were scrawled on freight cars at division point yards. Their only value was to tell the yard switching crew the car’s general destination. That meant the next yard–”Mco” for Mimico, “Adale” for Allandale, “Ott” for Ottawa, “NBay” for North Bay and so on. Or, even a single letter–”T” for Toronto, “M” for Montreal, “H” for Hamilton, “B” for Brantford, etc. Keep in mind that there were only a very few for a given yard. That is, Allandale men would never mark a car “B” for Brantford, as there was no assignment going there directly. If the car was a “short”, i.e. for set off at a station before the next division point, the town name or an understandable short form was scrawled on the car–”Meaford”, “Wingham”, etc. In other cases, a number was written to identify a connecting train or a track–”91″, “13″, etc.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to replicate this essential detail is to acquire a good artist’s pencil for a couple of bucks at an art supply or craft store. Get a white or light grey one (or both) and sharpen it to a fine point. Then scrawl appropriate marks for your area on the sides of freight cars. Don’t be afraid to smudge out a chalked label too–that’s exactly what the railway men of the steam era did.

When I originally wrote and published this on March 6, 2006, I was bound to the National Archives in Ottawa for a few days. Purpose—to sort out the mail contracts on passenger trains in Northern Ontario. The definitive work entitled Steam in Northern Ontario was the result of that research.

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