No. 89: M&StL USRA Gondola Modeling

In 2014 I finished a pair of HO scale USRA 40-foot, composite gondolas for the M&StL.  I collected photos and material for a magazine article, and just about the time I was done my buddy Clark Propst published an article on the same cars in the CNW Modeler magazine.  Clark covered the cars thoroughly, but I thought I’d post my material here.


The Prototype

In 1920 the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway took delivery of 250 composite, high-side gondolas, Class GX, series 27001 to 27499 (odd numbers only), from Magor.  These M&StL gondolas were painted black with white stenciling.  The last of these cars were retired and scrapped in 1948. 

The drawing below of M&StL 27001-27499 gondolas is courtesy Gene Green.

GS 27001

A second series of 125 USRA gondolas were acquired in 1942 from the used freight car dealer Hyman-Michaels.  These were former Chicago and Northwestern cars originally built in 1918 by AC&F.  According to an article in the Sept 1937 Railway Mechanical Engineer magazine, C&NW rebuilt the cars in the mid-30s, removing the drop doors and installing a solid wood floor.   These cars, after purchased by M&StL, were numbered 27501 – 27749 (odd numbers only).  The last of these gondolas were retired in 1953.

M&StL 27151, below, is a representative of this latter group.  Photo courtesy Bob’s Photos.


GS 27501

My Model

I used an undecorated Intermountain USRA gondola for this project, Intermountain part no. 41699.  I assembled the carbody with the exception of the kit-supplied wood sides and floor.  I also installed AB-schedule air brakes in place of the kit’s K-style brakes.  Other aftermarket parts included wire grab irons and uncoupling devices, Hi-Tech #6040 air hoses and a Cal Scale AB brake gear set.  Another thing I did was sand down the top chord about halfway to reduce the thickness of the top chord, and then I fixed Tichy gussets on the corners.


I felt the model would appear more like the prototypical if I replaced the wood sides and floor with separate wood or plastic strip.  One of the shortcomings of the model is that the floor planks do not overlap the sides as they do on the prototype.  Note that the planks extend underneath the sides and over the steel frame, helping to form a clean interior for loading fine material like sand or coal.  I felt I could model this feature by discarding the kit-supplied floor and making my own.   

I scratchbuilt a replacement solid floor using Evergreen styrene strip.  I used scale 2 x 4-inch strip; I cut some a few inches too short and some a few inches too long to provide some variation when the boards were installed.  Then I used Evergreen 2 x 12 for new sides.  I cut out ten pieces (five pieces per car side) and sanded them length-wise with coarse sandpaper to better resemble wood, and then installed them behind the steel frame.  The finished and painted car didn’t look too bad (below):


Later I took a closer look at the drawings provided by Gene Green.  The drawings indicate that the cars had K brakes, not AB.  On the old M&StL Yahoo Group Gene Green speculated that these cars never got AB brakes.  Ray Breyer guessed that the cars were probably retired in 1953 because that’s when K brakes were banned from interchange.  He could be right.  But the fact is my model should probably have K brakes. 


I sandblasted the model, washed it, and then airbrushed it with Testors Gloss Black.  I used decals by Mark Vaughn.  Mark developed the gondola set specifically for this car in October 2011.  This is a terrific decal set and it can be found at Mark’s preferred dealer, Des Plaines Hobbies at  If you’re not able to obtain decals through Des Plaines, you may contact Mark through his website at For questions or inquiries you may also contact Mark directly at  I added reweigh and repack data from an old Sunshine Models’ Southeastern Data decal set to update the car dates to my modeling era (mid-1950).  I also added chalk mark decals from a variety of Sunshine Models chalk marks sets. 


Above.  One of the problems I had with decals was the depth of the steel members on the sides.  They are so deep compared to the prototype that I had difficulty wrapping decals around them.  For example, see the M in the reporting marks below.


To finish the model I airbrushed it with a wash of 50% thinner, 25% Testor’s Flat Black and 25% Testor’s Gloss Black.  This secured the decals and hid the decal film, plus provided a uniform satin finish.  I added a few hand-drawn chalk marks using an artist’s white pencil and sealed them on the car with another very light spray of Testor’s Dullcote.  Then I sprayed the trucks and underframe with a light coat of model Masters Russian Earth Brown.   

Below.  I finished two cars, 27151 and 27197.  Here you can see how deep those steel supporting members are, and how difficult it was to wrap the decals around them.  The irregular-length floorboards, however–I think they look pretty good.


The last step was to “highlight” the model with Model Masters Russian Earth Brown to bring out the details.  The “highlighting” technique was made popular by master model maker Francois Verlinden in the 1970s.  I dipped the flat brush slightly into the paint and then wiped almost all the paint off, and then lightly stroked the car from top to bottom.  With light, even strokes, the rivets, corners, and other stand-out details will pick up the color but not the flat surfaces-providing a “highlight”. Generally I use lighter colors to highlight dark-colored models and dark colors to highlight light-colored models. Highlighting makes the details really stand out without discoloring the rest of the model.  I highlighted the entire car, including the interior, trucks, couplers, and all the underframe components. 

With the painting finally complete, I added Kadee #58 couplers, and little more weathering using a brush dipped in Bragdon’s Powders, and then polished the wheel treads.  I sealed everything one last time with a finish coat on the car using about 50% Testors Dullcote, 40% thinner and 10% Testors flat black mixed in for good measure.


And that’s it!  Two more cool cars for the layout.  I’m currently working on another USRA gondola for a friend’s blog, and eventually I’d like to finish a Frisco car as well.  Some Frisco cars were still in revenue service well in the mid-1950s.

Albuguerque Area 1 (20)

Wishing you and your families High Green this weekend.  – John G


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