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A railway car, propelled through the aid of cranks, gearing, &c., by one or more of the passengers. — Webster, 1882

The big slough this side of De Smet has been flooded this week and the C&NW RR track has been under water so deep that engines could not pass over it. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the trains were run down from De Smet and up from here to the edge of the water, when the passengers, mail and express would be transferred from one train to the other on handcars, which were just able to make the trip, and the trains then returned to Huron and Tracy. – Lake Preston Times, 1897

In The Long Winter (see Chapter 11, “Pa Goes to Volga”), Charles Ingalls and five other men take the handcar and go east on the railroad tracks, stopping to clear the tracks of snow as they make their way to Volga – about 35 miles away – where they will join other men working to clear the tracks. A good trivia question is to ask for the names of the six men on the handcar!

Wilder wrote that the six men were Mr. Fuller, Mr. Mead, Mr. Hinz, Mr. Wilmarth, Royal Wilder, and Pa. In the manuscript, there’s a bit more to the story. We learn that it’s Gerald Fuller on the handcar, not his brother Charleton, and that Charles Ingalls and Arthur Sherwood join six men already on the handcar, and they sit and rest until time to replace a man who has grown tired of pumping. The additional man named is Mr. Harthorn, most likely Edelbert Harthorn (the grocery store owner) and not his son Frank, also a character in the Little House books. Pa also explains to Ma that the handcar team will work to clear the small cuts between De Smet and Volga, and that the ten miles between Brookings (Laura Ingalls Wilder always spelled it “Brookins”) and Volga is the last bit of uncleared railroad. When the men make it to Volga, they are eating dinner at the hotel when the train from Brookings arrives. An unexpected friend is on that train: Mr. Edwards! He returns to De Smet with the men and an unpublished chapter tells of his visit with the Ingalls family. The composite photo above shows eight men and a railroad handcar. Not much room for sitting and resting, is there? Now imagine all those men in heavy winter coats!

Railroad handcar. At the time of the Little House books, a railroad handcar was a conveyance about nine feet in length, consisting of a wooden platform with two sets of metal wheels that allowed the platform to roll along railroad tracks. One or more men raised and lowered (pumped) the lever handle, which caused a connecting rod to turn a crankshaft connected to a gear, which turned the axle, causing the wheels to turn. A brake-lever allowed for stopping or slowing by applying friction to one wheel.

The above drawings are from the 1879 Car Builder’s Cyclopedia, published by the Railroad Gazette in New York. They show the side (top) and front (bottom) view of a handcar. Names of parts include: (1) Hand-car wheel, (2) Axle, (3) Journal-box, (4) Pinion, (5) Gear wheel, (6) Crank shaft, (7) Crank shaft bearings, (8) Sills, (9) End sills, (10) Floor timbers, (11) Cross frame Tie timber, (12) Seat, (13) Seat bracket, (14) Seat bracket box, (15) Seat riser, (16) Floor, (17) Lever frame post, (18) Lever frame cap, (19) Hand car lever, (20) Lever handle, (21) Lever shaft, (22) Lever shaft bearings, (23) Bell crank, (24) Connecting rod, (25) Lever frame tie rod, (26) Hand car truss rod, (27) Brake beam, (28) Brake beam hanger, (29) Brake head, (30) Brake rod, (31) Brake lever, and (32) Brake lever fulcrum. Click HERE to see a video of how a handcar works.


handcar (TLW 11)