An Illinois Central Railroad truck trailer is chained to a flatbed railcar after being loaded with a shipment of lard in April 1960 from Wilson & Co. in Cedar Rapids. The first outbound “piggyback” shipment from Cedar Rapids was destined for the Caribbean. (Gazette archives)

The idea for piggybacking — hauling truck trailers on flatbed train cars — might have been spawned in the late 1800s with the circus trains that crisscrossed the country. Some of the flatbed cars on those trains carried circus vehicles “piggyback” style.

On the Great Lakes, ferries had been carrying whole trains from port to port for years when, in the early 1950s, railroads and the trucking industry warily entered into a “multimillion-dollar experiment called Operation Piggyback,” according to a United Press wire story.

The semi-trailers were loaded with cargo, then put on rail flatcars and carried long distances by railroads.

“At Kansas City, for instance, a truck-tractor backs a trailer loaded with cargo onto a special ramp of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad,” the story reported. “The driver eases the trailer into position on a flatcar, unhitches it and drives off in his cab. In Oklahoma City next day, another driver backs his cab onto a ramp, picks up the trailer and hauls it away to provide a rush job of door-to-door delivery.”

The same news story pointed out that the president of the American Federation of Labor Teamsters, Dave Beck, who was Jimmy Hoffa’s predecessor, had mixed feelings about piggybacking, as did his union.

“It has a definite place in the future of transport,” he said. “But it should be used only when it is the most efficient means of transportation for the shipper.”

Idea catches on

The idea grew phenomenally in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1955, there were 168,150 piggyback loads. By 1964, that number was 797,474. The railroad industry responded by investing in track and tunnel improvements,

In November 1954, the North Western Railroad announced the expansion of its piggyback service between the Chicago-Milwaukee-Waukegan and St. Paul-Minneapolis. The service already was being used on North Western’s line through Cedar Rapids.

Using its own trailers, North Western picked up shipments, loaded them on the flatcars and shipped them by rail to the next city, where they were unloaded, attached to semi cabs and driven to their destination.

A trailer filled with lard was one of the Illinois Central Railroad’s first piggyback shipments out of Cedar Rapids. The shipment from Wilson & Co. left April 22, 1960, destined for the Caribbean. The Illinois Central road was the first to have its own trailers operating out of Cedar Rapids, although other railroads had incoming piggyback service. Jim Patten drove the Lynch Transfer tractor unit that moved the trailer of lard from the Wilson plant to the flatcar. (Gazette archives)

Cedar Rapids service

Illinois Central Railroad hired Lynch Transfer and Storage to haul the truck trailers for its piggyback service in Cedar Rapids.

In April 1960, a Lynch tractor moved a truck trailer filled with 30,000 pounds of lard from Wilson & Co. onto a rail car — the city’s first outgoing shipment using the piggyback method. The lard was bound for the Caribbean.

The Rock Island had been the major provider of piggyback hauling, with seven or eight trailers coming into the city each week but none going out.

The Milwaukee and the North Western roads had not yet established piggyback service in the Cedar Rapids area.

Teamsters conflict

The advances in rail shipping came rapidly as Detroit discovered the economies of shipping new automobiles by train.

In two years, from 1958 to 1960, the rail shipments of new cars doubled and cost the manufacturers far less than having trucks deliver the new vehicles.

Long freight trains carrying those new cars by piggyback concerned the Teamsters, prompting the union to initiate measures to recoup some of its trucking losses. The union attempted to increase the cost of piggyback transportation by negotiating a contract charing $5 for each trailer loaded onto a rail car.

The railroads claimed the Teamsters were lobbying the Interstate Commerce Commission and Congress to pass laws to limit the use of piggybacks.

The union, in turn, noted that states were losing money in fuel taxes by the use of piggyback shipping instead of trucks.

At the same time, though, small Iowa cities were benefiting. In Postville in northeast Iowa, only four freight trains passed through the depot in 1966, down from the 20 freight and passenger trains that once passed through the city. But the freight trains in 1966 were longer and carried far more freight.

The industry adjusted. Teamsters truck drivers still were a vital part of the overall picture since the trailers packed with cargo had to be unloaded and driven to delivery points at their destinations.

Watch a trailer loaded

Watch as a side loader puts a trailer onto an intermodal spine car at a Worcester, Mass., Conrail rail yard in the late 1990s.


The 1980s brought containers, sometimes stacked two and three high on rail cars. The containers were then transferred to trucks at destination points.

The piggyback, trailer-on-flatcar method began to wane.

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J.E. Anderson (left), district traffic manager for Wilson & Co., and Illinois Central agent Jack Gorman watch in April 1960 as a trailer carrying 30,000 pounds of Wilson lard is moved onto an Illinois Central rail car. It was the first piggyback shipment to leave Cedar Rapids. (Gazette archives)

A Chicago and North Western Railway photo from March 1954 shows flatbed rail cars carrying semi trailers. The railroad used the “piggyback” method to transport cargo to Cedar Rapids during the 1950s and 1960s. (Public domain)

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