Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Cullen-Friestedt Burro Crane - An Untold Story of Engineering Innovation

A rare Model 15 Cullen-Friestedt Burro Crane, dating to the early twentieth century - Click for larger image )

The Cullen-Friestedt Burro Crane - An Untold Story of Engineering Innovation

Railroads, as we know them today have existed since the middle of the nineteenth century. On a typical rail system, rail cars move along a pair of steel rails that are evenly spaced apart. Although narrow gauge systems still exist, the standard gauge distance between the inside edges of the rails is 1,435 mm but in the United States, Canada and Britain it is still called 4 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. Wooden ties, laid in a bed of gravel secure these rails. This system of rails and ties we call a railroad track.

A 1930 ad for the Model 20 Burro Crane, touting its draw-bar pulling power, courtesy of the Orange Empire Railway Museum - Click for larger image (, a group of workers (commonly known as a rail gang) would prepare the rail bed and lay down the tracks. Using hammers and spikes, the gang would manually set each individual tie on the rail bed. The process was labor intensive, and potentially very dangerous. The ties and rails were quite heavy, and there was always the potential to drop either, for example, on a worker’s foot.

Early on, the need for mechanical assistance was recognized. Soon enough, railcar mounted tamping machines and various cranes helped ease the burdens of rail construction and maintenance of way (MOW). Although some cranes were large enough to lift a locomotive back on to the tracks, many others were just large enough to lay ballast, lift ties and to position steel rails. As early as 1907, the Cullen-Friestedt Company, 1300 S. Kilbourn Ave., Chicago, Illinois entered that business with four-wheeled cranes designed to operate on rails. Although there is a contemporary Cullen-Friestedt Co. in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, that company is a closely held export management firm, not a manufacturer of mobile cranes.

A 1929 patent application drawing of a Model 20 Cullen-Friestedt Burro Crane - Click for larger image ( back to a pack animal of the Old West, the original Cullen-Friestedt Co. used the trade name “Burro” to market their rail-mounted cranes. Later, the Cullen-Friestedt tag line for the Burro Crane became the "Pack Animal of the Industry". Although there may have been other models during the past century, the Burro Crane progressed at least from Model 15 to 20, 30, 40 and 50.

In the early twentieth century, the Burro started big, with the Model 15. It was a boxy piece of equipment, but the operator had good visibility through the cab’s seventeen windowpanes. Projecting from the front of the cab was a double-girder boom, stiffened  by metal latticework. In order to counterbalance the relatively heavy boom, the cab extended aft, wherein lay heavy cast-iron ballast. In the early twentieth century, gasoline and diesel engines were relatively small and inefficient. Although wood gave way to steel, lightweight materials such as aluminum were not yet widely used. Other than excess weight, another other major drawback was its extended cab. On a rail-mounted crane, the wide swing radius of an extended cab meant that the stern might overhang an adjacent set of rails, thus raising the danger of collision.

A 1945 patent application drawing of a mobile highway crane is attributed to Inventor, Edward V. Cullen - Click for large image ( there is no separate Wikipedia entry for “Burro Crane”, many highlights of its invention and evolution may be lost to history. Thanks to a Google archive of old patent records, we can deduce that Mr. Edward V. Cullen was the design genius behind the Cullen-Friestedt Burro Crane. In a review of Cullen Friestedt patent images, there is a 1945 patent submission for a wheeled mobile crane bearing the signature of “Inventor, Edward V. Cullen”.

As befitting the logic of sequential numbers, the Burro Crane Model 20 was next to go into production. After scouring the internet, I found only a few images of the Burro Crane Model 20. One was from an ad for the Cullen An impeccably restored Model 30 Cullen Friestedt Burro Crane - Click for larger image ( Company in Railway Engineering and Maintenance Magazine. According to that 1930 ad, provided by the Orange Empire Railroad Museum in Perris, California, the Model 20 could act as its own engine, pulling construction or maintenance trains to needed locations. Referring to the self-propelled nature of Burro Cranes, the ad read, “With draw bar pull of 6,000 to 7,000 lbs. Burro Cranes frequently eliminate work trains or locomotives. On new construction, Burro Cranes handle their own trains”.

The second set of images derive from a 1929 patent submission, which included an Albert Y. A. Schmidt as co-inventor. The apparent differences between the Model 15 and the Model 20 were the introduction of a lattice boom and a new "truck for rotatably mounted structures" on the latter model. Representing a breakthrough in mobile crane design, the new truck featured a Early Model 30 Burro Crane retired from the Strasburg, Pennsylvania Railroad - Click for larger image ( crawler track for work beyond the railhead. The retractable crawler track allowed the Burro Crane to go where no rail-mounted craned had ever gone before. Later, Cullen modified its new truck design, fitting it with flanged steel wheels for travel on a mother car. With that option, MOW workers could quickly transport a Burro Crane over distances than would be economical in self-propelled mode.

Although I cannot place a specific date on it, I found an early Model 30 in an image taken by Mitch Goldman and posted on The Strasburg (Pennsylvania) Railroad’s Model 30 Burro Crane features both the multi-paned windows and the double-girder boom seen on the Model 15, but its cab configuration and diminutive size are pure Model 30. Since the Burro Crane Model 30 had a long production run, it continued to highlight the improvements in materials and design we associate with the mid-twentieth century. With the advent of high-strength safety glass, the number of windowpanes surrounding the operator dropped from seventeen to four, which were larger, water-sealed units.

Borrowing from the design of a naval gun turret, the Model 40 Burro Crane looked ready for action - Click for larger image ( a cue from naval turret guns, the Model 30 featured a welded steel cab and compact construction. With its internal cast iron ballast, the Model 30 could operate on one track without danger of the stern overhanging an adjacent track. From the markings on a 1950’s Lionel Model 3360 Burro Crane; we know that the tare weight of the real crane was 67,000 lb. I found records of a Model 30 Burro Crane built in 1952. According to salvage auction website, a Model 30 Burro Crane manufactured in 1977 recently sold in fair to poor condition.

During and after World War II, there was widespread acceptance of diesel electric locomotives on American railroads. Although the new locomotives often weighed no more than did their steam age precursors, tandem diesel engines commonly pulled more cars and ran faster. With all of that speed and weight, American railroads upgraded their rail beds to include heavier ballast, ties and rails. To keep up with the trend toward heavier railroad infrastructure, Cullen-Friestedt introduced the 75,000 lb. Model 40.

The Cullen Friestedt Model 40 Burro Crane weighed 75,000 lb. and featured a lattice boom - Click for larger image ( Cullen-Friestedt continued to manufacture and overhaul the Model 30 for many years, the larger Model 40 became the MOW vehicle of choice for many American railroads. In 1972, Federal Sign and Signal Corporation sold Burro Crane #40-324 (construction #127005) to Northwest Pacific Railroad in Ukiah, California. That retired Burro Crane now finds its home at Roots of Motive Power in Willits, California.

By 1972, the old Federal Sign and Signal Corp. (now Federal Signal Corp.) had purchased the Burro Crane name and its manufacturing facilities from Cullen-Friestedt. From then until the current day, there has been a dizzying succession of mergers, acquisitions and assumptions of the Burro Crane name. Federal Sign and Signal did not own the Burro Crane name for long. According to one source, in 1978, Avis Industrial, “owner of Burro Crane Corporation” purchased Badger Construction Equipment.

Bruised, but not beaten, This Cullen-Friestedt Model 40 Burro Crane recently changed hands - Click for larger image ( Equipment commenced operations in 1945, specializing in earthmoving, railroad, and material handling equipment, parts, and other products. According to Badger company archives, Badger marketed Burro Cranes under the Badger, Little Giant, Burro--CFT, Cullen FriestedtT, Western CullenT, and BurroT brand names.

In 1982, Badger introduced the heavier Burro 50 and Burro 6000. In 1990, Burro Crane Inc., then a subsidiary of Avis Industrial Corporation, moved from its Chicago facility to subsidiary, Badger, which acquired the Burro 40 & 45. Burro Crane was a sister company at the time. In 1997, Badger produced the last Burro Model 40 crane. In 2009, Manitex International, Inc. (NASDAQ: MNTX), a leading provider of engineered lifting solutions acquired Badger Equipment Company of Winona, Minnesota.

Carrying on the Burro Crane tradition, this Badger Equipment Company SPR48 20-ton Workrane updates the original design concepts of Inventor, Edward V. Cullen - Click for larger image ( the Badger Equipment Company website, is information on the current Model SPR48 Workrane. Looking like an updated and larger Burro Crane, Badger describes the SPR48 Workrane as follows: “When you need a true workhorse on the rails, look no further than the SPR48 Workrane. The only 20-ton, lattice-boom, rail-dedicated crane on the market, the SPR48 operates with dragline, clam shell or magnet attachments, has been completely updated with railroad safety items and meets the latest EPA emission requirements”. Other than its larger size, the description of the SPR48 sounds like a Burro Crane to me.

This is Chapter 2 of a two-part article on railroad Burro Cranes. To read Chapter 1, please click HERE.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Union Pacific Railroad Burro Crane BC-47 at Seven Mile Canyon

In the history of Moab, Utah, the prospector and his burro were once a common sight - Click for larger image (

Union Pacific Railroad Burro Crane BC-47 at Seven Mile Canyon

In May 2013, I drove from Downtown Moab, via U.S. Highway 191 North. My destination was the turnoff to Utah State Route 313, which is the gateway to Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. Although the distance was only eleven miles, the turnoff at Route 313 seemed like another world. Far from the shops and restaurants that make Moab so inviting to tourists, my destination was hot, dry and desolate. “Seven miles from nowhere”, I said to myself.

The Burro Crane at Seven Mile displays its name in cast iron letters six inches high - Click for larger image ( as soon as I turned on to Route 313, I spied an interesting contraption parked on a nearby railroad siding. With my pickup truck, I had easy access to the location of this unusual mechanical beast. Nearby, a weathered railroad sign identified the place as “Seven Mile”. Union Pacific Burro Crane BC-47 became “The Burro at Seven Mile”. In six-inch letters on the rear of its turret, the words, “BURRO CRANE” stood out on its cast iron ballast. In the dry desert air, that cast iron emblem could last for millennia.

On first glance, the turret of the Burro Crane looked like an antiaircraft gun from a mid-twentieth century warship. Upon further inspection, the function of the Burro Crane as “maintenance of way” equipment became obvious. With its flatcar as a tender, the Burro Crane was a mobile track repair vehicle. The burro’s compact, rounded turret allowed it to swivel without its ballast overhanging an adjacent rail line.

An old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad flatcar is coupled to the Burro Crane at Seven Mile - Click for larger image (, old and worn-out railroad ties lay in a pile. In addition, at trackside was a collection of bent and worn steel rails. Rather than utilizing welded steel rails, the old the Potash Branch line features 1960s railroad technology. In keeping with railroad construction throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wooden ties were set into gravel. Using large wrenches, nuts and bolts secured one track to another. For stability, spikes held the rails to the ties. Replacing earlier manual labor, the Burro Crane and its tender helped to automate the track repair process.

Accompanied by a small crew, the operator could use the Burro Crane’s diesel engine to propel both burro and flatcar to a prospective repair site. If rails required moving, the repair gang would first remove the bolts between the Union Pacific Railroad Burro Crane BC-47 stands on a siding at Seven Mile, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image ( rails. After removing the spikes on the affected rails, the burro would use a cable-strung electromagnet to lift each rail from the roadbed. If the repair required new railroad ties, the Burro Crane could lift out any damaged or derelict ones. A bucket could scoop up new gravel from the flat car or reconfigure existing ballast at the scene. Once the ties were in place, the gang could bolt the rails back together and then drive spikes into the new ties.

By today's standard for automated track-laying along mainline roadbeds, the Burro Crane and gang system seem archaic. Still if repairs are only occasional and are not extensive in nature the Burro Crane’s throwback design and relatively diminutive size can be more economical than the use of heavier equipment. With weather and monkey-wrench protection for its powertrain, The author, Jim McGillis' Titan truck at Seven Mile, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image ( vintage piece of equipment could go on operating indefinitely in the dry climate of the high desert. In wetter climates, most similar units have disintegrated into piles of rusty scrap metal.

The geographic setting at Seven Mile is epic. The crane's block and tackle dangled only six feet from the ground. The angle of the lattice-boom appeared ready for business. In the background are the Klondike Bluffs of Arches National Park. From another angle, the view beneath the long boom is of the La Sal Range, far past Moab. Other than the power poles and their high-voltage lines that cross near Seven Mile, the Burro Crane was the most prominent human-made object in sight. In fact, it appears on Google Maps (2014 version) much as it did the Graffiti-splattered Union Pacific Railroad logo sign on the cab of Burro Crane BC-47 at Seven Mile, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image ( of my visit.

With a Union Pacific emblem on the side of its cab and its faded yellow paintjob, the Burro Crane appeared to be authentic Union Pacific rolling stock. Soon I determined that Burro Crane BC-47 more likely started life with the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW), which is a precursor to the contemporary Union Pacific.

The giveaway is the flatcar tender, which appears to be even older than the venerable Burro Crane. The flatcar still bears DRGW markings. Spray-paint on the side of the flatcar indicates that the last date of inspection or repair was 4-‘84, almost thirty years prior. In the Old West, a prospector and his burro Union Pacific Railroad Burro Crane BC-47 in Grand Junction, Colorado in 2010 - Click for larger image ( mates for life. Since the arrival of this burro, more than half century ago, the old flatcar and the new burro mated and then stayed coupled for life.

As I began my research into Burro Crane BC-47, I found that it might be the last Model 40 Burro Crane operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. My Google searches yielded only two pictures of Union Pacific Model 40 Burro Cranes and both were of BC-47. In the past decade, BC-47 has apparently stayed close to home. Those two photos of the crane and tender were taken in nearby Green River, Utah and Grand Junction, Colorado. With its age and size, it is unlikely that BC-47 would stray beyond the Western Slope of the Colorado Plateau.

View of the Potash Branch line of the Union Pacific Railroad, looking from Seven Mile toward Moab, Utah - Click for larger image ( indeed the Burro at Seven Mile were the last of its breed operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, it would be interesting to see it in action. I propose that rail buffs in Moab and fans of the Union Pacific Railroad request a public demonstration of Burro Crane BC-47. Since it already sits on a siding, that demonstration could include lifting old rails and ties on to transport vehicles for disposal at an appropriate location. If anyone out there can help to arrange such an event, please contact me at my email address below. I shall be happy to attend.

This is Chapter 1 of a two-part article on railroad Burro Cranes. To read Chapter 2, please click HERE.