[N&W] Re: VGN Conveyor Cars

nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue May 4 23:13:09 EDT 2004

[Mark Musser replies:]

An additional source of information would be video #4 in the series done by
Herron Rail Services.  "Pocahontas Glory Vol. 4" is a video showcasing steam
movements from the coalfields to the piers at Lambert's Point and in this
you will see conveyor cars trundling back and forth and displacing coal to
"trim" the ship.  Of course this is all N&W stuff; but a darn good video

[Clint Smoke writes:]

Well here is one where I can help a little. I can tell you a little about
these cars, but their mechanical details can best be extracted from the
cited references.

I went to high school and college in Norfolk. The gentleman who lived across
the street from our home in Norfolk operated a conveyer car at Virginian's
piers at Sewells Point, near the present Naval Base. He usually worked days,
but occasinally worked overtime, working a 16 hour day, getting home around

When he was scheduled to work a regular day, I visited on several occasions
during the summer. Though the place was dirty, it was usually comfortable as
we were on the water. I am sure that during the winter, it was miserable.

The operation the car was rather simple. As I recall it had controls that
determined speed, and airbrakes with the usual railroad type of controls.
Levers also controlled the pneumatically-operated hopper doors. Of course, I
got to operate these cars, and it was all quite interesting for a young
visitor. I would not wanted to have made a living at it however!

These cars were obsolete then as equipment at the new pier dumped the
hoppers directly onto a conveyer belt that ran onto the pier and loaded the
coal into ships. However, the dumping requirements at the time required the
use of the older facility as well as the new pier.

On the older pier, one or two hopper cars, depending upon their size, were
dumped into each conveyer car. There must have been about 10 or 12 of these
cars, and typically half that number would be used to load a ship on either
side of the pier.

Once loaded, these cars were driven several hundred feet toward the water
and entered an elevator that lifted the cars nearly 100 feet to the top of
the pier. From there the cars would travel as far as 1000 feet out onto the
pier and dump their contents into a chute that eventually dropped the coal
into the ship alongside the pier. The location of the chute could be
anywhere along the pier and was moved to load the various compartments, or
holds, within the vessel.

If you think all of that sounds romantic, think if you will about the idea
of the dust cloud, coal dust mind you, that arose when you released 100 tons
of coal to drop about 100 feet down a chute. And imagine what that dust did
what it landed on your sweaty body.

Anyhow, once the car was empty, it continued on out to the end of the pier,
then reversed to return down and slop to wind up out in the yard and return
to the starting point.

The cars had a cab on one end that provided some shelter for the operator.
If I recall, the cab was on the inboard or "shoreward"  end of the car, but
I could be wrong. As I indicated, the cab contained a few basic controls,
basically a simple motor control, and of course, the usual railroad style
airbrake control. In addition there were controls for the
pneumatically-operated hopper doors. I am sure that there was some sort of
coal stove for keeping warm in the winter.

The cars were electrically powered, getting their power from an overhead
wire. Running flat out they went at a fast walk, maybe 6 MPH. There was an
exception to that speed, and that was when coming down the slope that
dropped 100 feet in the 1000 of so feet of pier length. Once the car entered
the slope, its decent, and its speed, were controlled by gravity. There was
no power on this section. Gravity would get you to the bottom, and with
sufficient speed, allow you to coast a distance of several hundred feet, far
enough to where you were back under the trolley wire.

As I recall there was a bit of finesse required in making sure that you got
the car to coast far enough on the level ground to reach the overhead wire
again, and at the same time maintain a safe speed by careful use of the
brakes. Realize that during he decent there was no power. Stopping short
would leave you stranded. And since there was no power, the compressor would
not work so what you had for air was all you were going to get. Using too
much air would leave you with no brakes at the end of the trip. That might
be okay unless there was another car ahead that had not cleared the decent

There were stories about operators who stopped a bit short, and had to get
help in being towed to the powered section of the track. There were also
stories of conveyer cars blowing through the yard at something approaching
the speed of sound. And of course there were occasional collisions.

My good instructor made sure that neither occurred on his car. 

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