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.
Originally, 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.
Hearkening 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.
Since 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 Friestedt 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 retractable 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 Railpictures.net. 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.
Taking 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.
Although 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.
Badger 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.
On 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.