Paper Railway Wheels

Sep 2, 2021 0 comments

Paper has multitude of uses—from the newspaper that we read in the morning to the teabags that infuses our morning cup, from the toilet paper in our bathroom to the decorative wallpaper that brightens our bedroom, this versatile material is used in innumerable number of ways. And for a brief period in the late 19th century, they were also used for making wheels for railways.

Conventional wisdom says that all load bearing structural components should be made of sturdy materials such as wood or steel. So where did the idea of making paper wheels spring from?

Before the 1870s, most railway car wheels were made of cast iron. Some wheels were composite with wrought-iron rim and wooden drive centers. Cast iron wheels transmitted all imperfections of the track into the car above it, making train rides noisy and uncomfortable. As the weight of passenger cars and the speed of trains increased, rides became more shaky and there was a feeling of insecurity as cast-iron wheels were brittle and prone to fracture.

In order to dampen vibrations and make rides more comfortable, in 1869, locomotive engineer Richard N. Allen came up with a solution. Allen designed the paper wheel. These wheels were not totally made of paper, but consisted of a metal rim, a cast-iron hub and two circular iron plates sandwiching an internal core made of hundreds of sheets of strawboards glued together to create a solid, dense, compressed mass, quite capable of supporting great weight.

An actual in situ paper wheel at the Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado.

Allen tested the wheels first on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, and once he was satisfied with the results, he set up an enterprise manufacturing paper car wheels. The Allen Paper Car Wheel Works was initially based in Morris, Illinois, and the company's principal customer was the Pullman Palace Car Company based in Chicago. Pullman was known for their luxurious dining and sleeping cars featuring carpeting, draperies, and upholstered chairs, and the timing of Allen’s invention fit perfectly with Pullman’s growth. Pullman’s first order was for one hundred wheels placed in 1871. Eventually, these paper wheels became standard items on all Pullman cars. The volume of business with Pullman caused Allen to set up a factory in the company town of Pullman, in Chicago, Illinois.

The company’s main plant was located in Hudson, New York, where Allen employed thirty men turning out approximately ten wheels per day. The core of the wheel was made of laminated sheets paper that were pasted together in batches of ten and pressed in a hydraulic press at 1,800 pounds per inch. The compressed disks were then steam-heated to dry for several days, and then the process was repeated, building up successive layers until the paper core was 4 to 5 inches thick and was made up of 200 sheets of paper.

For assembly, the wrought-iron back plate was placed against the hub flange and the circular paper core block forced onto the hub with 25 tons pressure. The tire or rim was then pressed onto the core and finally the front plate was bolted on. A typical 42-inch-wheel weighed 1,115 pounds, approximately 200 pounds of which was the hardened paper core.

By 1881, the Allen Paper Car Wheel Co. operated workshops in New York and Chicago, but maintained its processing plant in Morris. Each workshop employed approximately 80 men and produced more than 24 wheels a day. The company produced and sold thousands of wheels each year. By 1893, there were reported to be 115,000 paper wheels in use on American railroads.

The demise of paper wheels came after the turn of the century, with the change in car design, weight and braking, especially with the switching from wood to steel cars. These were considerably heavier and produced far greater braking loads on the wheels. In 1915, the Interstate Commerce Commission declared paper wheels unsafe and gradually removed them from service. With it, not only paper-cored wheel but all composite wheels disappeared, in preference for a solid steel wheel.

# Helena E. Wright, George Pullman and the Allen Paper Car Wheel, Technology and Culture
# Paper Railroad Wheels?, Ken Cupery
# John H. Lienhard, Paper Railroad Wheels, The Engines of Our Ingenuity


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