Uncovering the History of Jordan Spreaders: 5 Trivia Facts

Ever heard of Jordan Spreaders?

If you’re into model railroading, you probably have.

When we recently added some HO scale Walthers Jordan spreaders to our inventory, I decided to research the history of this intriguing railroad equipment to see what I could find out.

Simple in design, Jordan spreaders have a unique place in railroad history: they’re the earliest type of true maintenance equipment used by railroads. And they had almost no moving parts.

Railroads use them for a variety of purposes:

  • Grading & gravel distribution
  • Ditch work
  • Snow removal
  • Brush trimming

Here are 5 other interesting facts about Jordan spreaders:

1- Oswald F. Jordan developed the Jordan spreader,

first filing a patent in 1890 when he listed a man named Robert Potts as the co-inventor. The patent covered a single blade mechanism that had an adjustable blade height via a hand crank and gearing.

Jordan worked on the Canada Southern Railway, which was later a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad. By 1898, he left his work at Canada Southern to focus more fully on his spreaders.

2- Jordan spreaders evolved through several key design innovations:

In their crudest form, they were built on wood chassis and featured straight wings. Eventually, that progressed to the “Knuckle Braced” series which boasted fancy new features like folding locking arms, a movable front plow, and all steel construction.

That gave way to a host of other designs over the years: the Standard line, Type A, Type J, and lastly, the “Road Master.” The Jordan spreader was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame back in 2001, where it shared a spot with the rotary snowplow (read on for an interesting fun fact about those).

3- The free-pivoting, angled plow design was simple yet effective.

What the Jordan spreader lacks in beauty, it more than makes up for in functionality. Extended wings could be attached that were fit to the unique contour of a railroad’s right-of-way. A ditching attachment could be added to the wings, making it possible for the railroad to contour its ballast and perform routine ditching work simultaneously.

The eventual development of the Jordan spreader into a multi-purpose Maintenance of Way (MoW) vehicle gave it even more versatility to do its work on the railways, with adjustable blades and ploughs added to the wings.  It was this that drove an expansion of use to include trackside ditch maintenance and ballast spreading.

4- Snow was no match for Jordan,

who also designed a wedge snowplow to clear snow from railways. Not many were produced; he also built a “Track Oiler,” as well as a Ballast Cleaner.

Only a small number were ever made. Then there was an attempt of a daring, double-ended snowplow, but a lack of success kept it out of regular production.

Did you know? The wedge snowplow was the precursor to the rotary snowplow (also inducted into the NARHF along with the Jordan spreader).

A dentist named J.W. Elliot invented the rotary in 1869, but he never built a working model or prototype. Others such as Orange Jull expanded on the original design. Early rotaries used steam engines inside their car bodies to power the blades; newer ones were powered by either diesel or electric.

On the subject of snow, check out this impressive video:

5- Whatever happened to Jordan spreaders?

By 1910, Jordan bought a piece of land in Indiana from the New York Central Railroad, where he planned to build his own shop. His plans were short-lived. On August 1st, 1910, Oswald Jordan passed away, leaving the business to his wife and children.

Management was taken over by Walter J. “Colonel” Riley, which he ran until 1960, introducing further innovations that led to greater versatility.

Jordan spreaders enjoyed prolific production – so much so that new construction slowed for a time because so many (1,400+) had already been produced.

From clearing snow to performing ditch work, these practical powerhouses remain in use, steadfastly performing their duties on railroads across the country. Even today, the branding from one of the company’s earliest logos remains true: a Jordan spreader really “Does the Work of an Army of Men.”

Nightwatch Trains specializes in HO scale model railroading. See if we have any Jordan Spreaders left in stock.