Colors of Union Tank Line tank cars

Cyril Durrenberger

Recently there have been a number of emails on the Earlyrail site related to building HO scale models of the Union Tank Line (UTL) frameless tank car using models of a similar narrow gauge car.  It appears that the main thing the railroads did was to change the trucks and then add an additional pad for the narrow gauge truck bolster on the bolster casting.  I provided a number of photos of the narrow gauge cars on that are on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.  Related to that there has been a discussion on the colors used by UTL for early day tank cars.  I realize that this list typically starts at 1900 with most of the interest in the 1950's.  I am including below a summary of what we have been able to locate on this issue.  If someone has information (not conjecture) that will assist with answering some of the questions on these colors, please either respond on this list or off line to me in person.  I can post the photos of the narrow gauge cars if there is interest and the list owner approves them.


Cyril Durrenberger

  By A.J. Hundhausen (owner of Silver Crash Models)

 The 1883 LA newspaper clipping that Don Ball posted yesterday adds a crucial new piece of data to the discussion of the 1900-era painting and lettering of UTL / Standard Oil tank cars. I suspect that several of us have been thinking along similar lines after seeing it. Let me try to set out my thoughts here, to see if there is any agreement on these points and to raise a few more questions.


            The crucial statement in the clipping is that “the cars filled with the oil of the Standard Oil Company - - - are all painted blue.” If we accept this statement we can understand the appearance of the two Union Tank Line cars included in the set of Harrisburg Car Works builder’s photos. When these photos first appeared on the Internet Cyril Durrenberger posed the question of the color of their tanks, which appear light with dark lettering on these gray-scale images. As Don has pointed out, the light appearance of these tanks on a photo taken with the blue-sensitive film of the 1860s - 1890s, is consistent with the blue color given in his newspaper article. The dark frames and tank ends of these cars would have been some darker and/or redder color.

            What is still missing is any indication of the dates of the two Union Tank Line cars among the Harrisburg photos. There are also builder’s photos of several NYC&HR Fast Freight Line cars in the Harrisburg group that were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; all of these had arch-bar trucks. There are also Harrisburg photos of similar NYC&HR cars with wood-beam trucks; these must have been built before 1876.  Both Union Tank Line cars seen among these photos have wood-beam trucks similar to those on the earlier NYC&HR cars. To me this suggests that both of the Union Tank Line cars were built before 1876. 

            If we accept the dates suggested above, the tanks of UTL cars would have been painted blue in the 1870s and perhaps the early 1880s. The newspaper clipping indicates that cars in service carrying oil to southern California were still “all blue” in 1883.


            There is photographic evidence that the tanks of UTL cars were painted a dark color with light lettering in the 1890s and early 1900s. Documents indicate that the tank color was some tone of red.

            I was been told a few years ago by Mr. David Garcia of Los Angeles that he was present in Colorado when a narrow-gauge tank car was being stripped of its many layers of black paint, revealing a layer of fire-engine red paint with silver or aluminum lettering. Further, he recalled that this lettering said “STANDARD OIL”. Rick Steele has recently related a similar experience to Cyril Durrenberger. Do we now have two independent indications of the same pattern?

            The earliest photo that I am aware of showing a UTL tank car with dark body and light lettering, consistent with this paint and lettering scheme, is that of UTL #7827 shown in the 1895 Car Builder’s Dictionary. Do any of you actual date of this photo, or even more important, know of earlier photos showing this same pattern of paint and lettering?

            Finally, there are lots of builder’s photos and in-service photos from the 1900-1910 era that show this same pattern of a dark tank and light lettering.


            It is also generally accepted that the transition from red to black tanks on UTL cars came in 1912. David Garcia has read me the text of a UTL or Standard Oil bulletin from that year ordering this change.


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