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Contrary to popular belief, not all railroad cars are the same. A gondola car is just one example of a freight car that has its own specialty, and therefore its own look. Typically, gondola rail cars feature low walls and open tops, and are best for carrying bulky or dense material. The railroad gondola car was named after the gondola boats often found in Venice, which are long, narrow boats typically used to carry passengers around the area. A gondola car has low sides and a flat bottom, much like the original gondola boats.
The characteristic low walls allowed such cars to be easily loaded and unloaded with heavy materials. Shortly after the 20th century began, the ability for gondolas to be unloaded from the bottom was invented. The flat bottom became a chute that was controlled by a lever, only to be pulled when the train was stopped, and the materials ready to be dropped off. The cargo was usually pushed toward the side of the car, ready to be carted off elsewhere.
At this time, the gondola car was still made of wood. The chute required a change from wood to steel construction, since only metal was strong enough not to buckle when the car's contents were dropped off in such a way. Since then, there have been other changes as well. For example, while the side dump model uses hinged sides to drop the cargo off to the side, the drop bottom type dumps the contents underneath the car. The two types are typically easy to spot, since one has side hinges and the other has them only on the bottom.
Not long after the method of dumping cargo was changed, the height of the sides of some cars was altered, as well. A gondola car with higher sides is fittingly called a high side gondola, and can be requested by the customer if the loading requirements demand it. Additionally, there are now some gondola train cars that are covered, particularly to protect expensive cargo from inclement weather.
A gondola car is typically used to transport material that is bulky or dense. This could include scrap metal, steel beams, poles, coils, lumber, logs, and even premade parts of railroad tracks. Additionally, gravel, coal, and woodchips have been carried in this type of railroad car since its invention.