Railroad Cranes and Derricks

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This file was last updated on November 7, 2018.

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Crane or Derrick?

Union Pacific records indicate that they used the term "Derrick" to describe wrecking cranes, and "Locomotive Crane" or simply "Crane" when describing all other types.

As a general statement, a wrecking crane, or derrick, has a lifting boom that is solid metal to provide support for heavy lifts, and a locomotive crane has a lifting boom with a lattice structure.

The following comes from the 1946 Car Builder's Cyclopedia, page 512:

Wrecking Cranes

Wrecking cranes are a form of locomotive crane, similar in design but, being intended for very heavy severe service, usually are more strongly built than the general service machines. They are designed chiefly for wrecking service but also are used in bridge construction and other heavy service on railroad lines.

The booms--seldom more than 35 to 40 ft. in length--generally are curved near the top, but sometimes are made straight and provided with an extension so that, for special work, they may range in length upward to 90 ft. or more. The shorter booms are generally used in railroad wrecking service; for a vertical lift they have an effective radius ranging from about 15 ft. to 40 ft.; the hoist line may, however, be payed out beyond the end of the boom and used to drag an object within lifting range.

Wrecking cranes generally are steam operated but in some cases are equipped for electric or Diesel operation.

Locomotive Cranes

Locomotive cranes are extensively used in railroad operations. They may be equipped with a plain fall-block provided with a hook, slings, or tongs; with buckets for handling loose materials; or with electric magnets for handling metals. Many are so designed that power-shovel or pile-driver attachments may be installed. Steam power cranes are most common but electric power and also internal combustion-Diesel- engines are used to some extent. Usually locomotive cranes not only are self propelled but also have sufficient tractive effort to permit their use for hauling work trains and also for switching purposes in small yards. The booms are made in lengths ranging upward to 70 or 80 ft. for general service.

Although some of the earliest railroad derricks were built in the 1899 to 1905 time period, with just 40 tons as their lifting capacity, by the 1905 to 1910 period, derricks were generally in the 60-100 tons capacity and were used at railroad wreck sites as part of the overall cleanup effort.

After about 1905, it is this 100 ton capacity that seems to be the dividing point between derricks (solid booms) and cranes (lattice booms). A derrick is a piece of lifting equipment that although it travels on railroad wheels, it is meant to be made stationary and stabilized by the use of outriggers prior to making a lift. Derricks were designed to lift their heavy loads with the use of outriggers, which are supports, usually in the center and at each corner that were extended and stabilized, providing a solid platform for the derrick's heavy lifting task.

A locomotive crane is a crane that is self-propelled either by steam power, or after the mid 1950s, by diesel-mechanical or diesel-electric power. A locomotive crane is designed to be mobile while performing its lifting task. The newer machines are equipped with outriggers for heavy lifts.

Some railroad wrecking cranes, or derricks, were equipped with small spotting engines that could make small movements while being spotted before making their heavy lifts, and prior to extending their outriggers. A locomotive crane was fully self-propelled and could move itself and several empty or loaded cars of material from one job site to another. This feature makes locomotive cranes very useful for their usual role in railroad track maintenance work.

Although the early examples of railroad wrecking cranes were in the range of 40, 50 or 60 tons, after about 1905 railroad wrecking cranes varied from 100 to 250 tons capacity.

Locomotive cranes vary in their capacity from as little as 10 tons to as high as 50 tons. Larger versions have been manufactured but are found at industrial sites where lifting capacities between 50 and 115 tons are needed, along with a self-propelled capability.

Locomotive Cranes

A locomotive crane is unique among other cranes (lattice boom) and derricks (solid boom) in its ability to perform lifting operations while serving as a locomotive for one or more attached rail cars. This unique feature allows a locomotive crane to quickly travel both short and long distances to remote job sites under their own power, if required.

Larry Wobith's research as of mid 2005 found that Union Pacific had 52 Ohio locomotive cranes, including those cranes received as part of UP's mergers in 1983-1996. The earliest UP crane appears to have been purchased in 1963 , and the earliest on the roster is an ex-Missouri Pacific model built in 1960. The last UP crane purchased was in 1992, and the last acquired from a merger partner was from C&NW, built in 1994. Union Pacific also has 14 American Locomotive Cranes in various models and capacities.

Features common to all locomotive cranes include a lattice boom extending from a rotating machine house, a welded, heavy steel frame, and two sets of trucks designed to run on railroad tracks. Major locomotive crane components include a diesel engine, a generator, traction motors, axles, and other mechanical and hydraulic systems and controls as required. The cab design of a locomotive crane is usually positioned on the forward part of the machinery house to provide a full range of vision for the crane operator. In later years, many locomotive cranes also have manually extended outriggers.

One model locomotive crane differs from another model by its weight and capacity, its counter weight size, the boom length, Westinghouse or General Electric traction equipment and either a standard height cab or an elevated cab.

Locomotive cranes are generally assigned a boom idler car, which usually has a support for the boom to rest on. These idler cars also carry various chains, timber beams and other equipment that is needed for the crane to perform its function. The idler cars are usually flat cars retired from revenue service. Other types of cars that are associated with, and are generally part of a crane train can include a pile driver car, a supply car, side dump cars for ballast and fill material, as well as additional flat cars used to carry material for railroad maintenance and repair work.

Pile Driver Attachments

Information about specific locomotive cranes on Union Pacific is difficult to obtain. Interested observers must depend on photographs to determine which locomotive cranes have been equipped as pile drivers.

Many of UP's locomotive cranes have been equipped with pile driving attachments. In the example of one particular former C&NW locomotive crane still in service on UP in Colorado in October 2018, a retired operator wrote that the C&NW locomotive crane was ordered with a Berminghammer Mark 5 Series Hammer (Direct Drive Model B3505 rated at 46,000 ft-lb of energy) and Leads with Hydraulic Kicker (or Spotter-depending on the terminology). The Leads are 85' Tall. The pile driving attachment is used to drive 14"x14" 60' Steel H Pile, or 12" Diameter Pipe Pile. Manufactured by Berminghammer Foundation Equipment, a Canadian Company. American Ohio did not make its own pile-driving attachments.

MKT Manufacturing is a maker of pile driving attachments, and is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.

International Construction Equipment (ICE) is a maker pile driving attachments, headquartered in Mathews, North Carolina.

Company Histories

(Read about the histories of the companies that manufacture locomotive cranes and wreck derricks.)


A ditcher was a locomotive crane with a dipper stick at the end of its boom. Compared to a regular steam shovel which had dippers that were 2-1/2 to 4 cubic yard capacity, a ditcher dipper usually had 1/2 to 1-1/2 cubic yards capacity. On Union Pacific, several ditchers were built in-house, and several were purchased from the same companies that furnished locomotive cranes.

(more research is needed for ditchers on Union Pacific)


Wobith, Larry. "Union Pacific's Ohio Locomotive Cranes" in The Streamliner, Union Pacific Historical Society, Volume 21, Number 1, Winter 2007, page 27

Correspondence with John Taubeneck, August 2014

Union Pacific Equipment Record

Surviving Railway Steam Cranes of North America (web site)

American & Ohio Locomotive Crane Co. (company web site, now maintained by IPS Cranes)

Original Otis patent -- U. S. Patent 1089; dated February 24, 1839