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Earth Movers: 1901

Earth Movers: 1901

Washington, D.C., or vicinity circa 1901. "Group of laborers on railcar digging through dirt pile along track bed." 6x8 inch glass negative, D.C. Street Survey Collection. View full size.


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Judging from several clues, e.g. the empty cars on the right, soil on ties and rails to the left, and multiple men poking the soil in the car, they are dumping soil through the open deck of a trestle to create a fill. The cars are likely hopper bottomed and the men are working the soil to get it to flow through the hopper gate(s). Soil is hard to get to flow freely through what is essentially a funnel and needs to be encouraged, which is what the men appear to be doing. Wooden trestles were expensive to maintain and railroads often built them, then buried them with soil to create a more manageable fill which was usually safer to navigate, sometimes at increased speed.

This may be an elevated tressle

Notice the empty rails to the left. They appear not to have any ballast underneath the ties which makes me think the rail cars are bottom dumpers which are dropping their loads through the tracks to some sort of distribution system. This type of operation is still being used on the Great Lakes for loading oar ships. You can find videos how it works on YouTube.

[By 1900, the Great Lakes carriers had switched from oars to propellers. - Dave]

Just another senior moment which, unfortunately, are becoming my normal operating procedure. - skinner

Dirt and Cars

It looks like the men are manhandling dirt in a railcar like those on the left. The angled ends of the beams are the same as those on the cars on the siding. The foreman and men on the right are likely standing on an empty car. Those metal straps are similar to those on the cars to the left.

Mostly pikes

At first glance I thought they were all holding ergonomic shovels from Hades with those bent-loop handles. On closer inspection these are long-handled pikes, used to loosen compacted soil.

Shovels? Look Closer

Only two shovels are seen in the photo. These guys are trying to free up the load with heavy iron pikes to allow it to pass through the open car bottom. This area looks like a terminal of some sort, complete with arc lighting.

The Crowned Heads of Dirt

Note to self: invest in fedora manufacturers! City slickers need 'em, gandy dancers gotta have 'em, too. You're nothing without your swanky chapeau!


With watch chain and whistle at right.

(why does Slim Pickens pop into my mind?)

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