Builders of Wooden Railway Cars ... and some of other stuff

Minerva Car Works - Pennock Bros.

The Minerva Car Works, Pennock Bros. props., had its beginnings at Minerva, OH, in 1874, when Isaac N. (Newton) Pennock (1850-1925) and his brother Willard (1852-1924) formed a partnership to manufacture agricultural implements and other foundry products. With $250 in capital and one employee they set up shop in an old foundry building.

Isaac, the older brother, had departed the farm at age 17, and had a pursued a variety of occupations before joining in business with his brother. Willard had been a member of the first graduating class from Minerva High School in 1871, then been involved in the oil production business, and most recently had sold sewing machines. Both brothers were born near Minerva, of a fairly well-to-do family long in this country. It appears that Isaac was the “businessman” and Willard the “mechanic.”

The brothers were distant cousins to Samuel Nichols Pusey, one of the founding partners in the Delaware firm that became Harlan & Hollingsworth. Though there may have been no direct connection, it is interesting to note that the Delaware Puseys were a family of foundrymen and iron shipbuilders.

The times and the place combined to bring the brothers into the car building business. By 1879, the national economy was booming after the depression years that followed the financial panic of 1873. Though railroad building had reached its peak, there was something new called “narrow gauge.” Various interests had come together to begin building railroads with rails 24", 36" or 42" apart, rather than the “standard gauge” of 52˝" (4' - 8˝"). These railroads were much cheaper to build and could go seemingly anywhere. In 1879, Ohio had more narrow gauge trackage than any other state or territory. Minerva had two such railroads and a “standard gauge” one to boot.

Though they had never before built a railway car, the brothers acquired a contract to build 100 wooden narrow gauge freight cars, with delivery to begin in 30 days. No one knows for whom these cars were built, but most likely they were for one of the two narrow gauge railroads that ran through Minerva: the Connotton Valley Railway, which ran from Cleveland to Brewster with a branch extending through Minerva to Carrollton, or the Alliance & Lake Erie Railroad, which extended north from Alliance and south to Minerva.

The morning after the contract was signed, the brothers’ factory was totally destroyed by fire. With the insurance in the amount of just 20% of their losses, they leased an unoccupied building, equipped it, and 28 days later began filling the contract.

Orders for more cars followed, and in 1882 the brothers formally organized the Minerva Car Works, Pennock Bros., props., and built a new plant, manufacturing a variety of wooden freight cars. [Interestingly, the listing for the company in the “Car Builders” section of the 1877 edition of Poor’s Directory of Railway Officials gives the company name as “Pennock Bros.”]

This plant was destroyed by fire in 1887, but was rebuilt almost immediately with double the capacity. At some point it reportedly had a capacity of 3,000 cars per year, making it one of the largest of the era.  One source says a great many of these were built to the narrow-gauge of 42" without saying for whom.

An interesting side-light is that when the plant was rebuilt in 1887, an electricity generation plant was a part of the new facility. There was apparently excess capacity in this plant, because in 1888 the Minerva Car Works agreed to furnish the village of Minerva 12 electric lights of 2,000 candle power each for street lighting. They were to burn 17 nights each month until 12 o’clock midnight, at a cost of $60 per light per year. This was the beginning of Minerva's municipal power system.

By 1893, the Car Works was employing 200 people in its plant, with gross earnings nearly double its 1881 record of $163,000. But when the financial panic of 1893 hit, business dropped off for the first time in 15 years. During 1894, the plant operated at only partial capacity and even sometimes shut down between orders. With the economy recovering, in 1895 the Car Works went back to nearly full-time.

During the early 1890s, Willard Pennock had conceived the idea of building freight cars from pressed steel. He was no doubt influenced by the manufacture of these cars that had begun in Great Britain  in 1887, and by the opening in 1888 of a plant in Joliet, Illinois, to produce pressed steel trucks and other car parts (but not complete cars).

In 1892, Willard published drawings for a steel gondola car with frame and body combined as a single structure. {36} He also did plans for flat cars and box cars, and claimed that sample cars would be produced, but apparently did not produce them at that time.

Minerva Car Works 1893 advertisement
(1893 edition, Poor’s Manual of Railway Officials)

When, during the financial panic of 1893, Charles L. Taylor, assistant to the president of Carnegie Steel, began to see railway cars as a badly needed new market for his product and set out to do something about it, he discovered three car manufacturers actively working toward the same goal: Charles Schoen in Pittsburgh, a manufacturer of pressed steel car parts, Samson Fox, an English steelmaker with a plant in Joliet, Illinois, producing freight car trucks, and Willard Pennock of the Minerva Car Works. {35}

Taylor ordered seven flat cars from Fox in 1894, and they were delivered that fall. But they were produced from I-beams, not pressed-steel plates. He ordered one steel flat car from Pennock, which was delivered in the summer of 1895: apparently giving rise to the claim that the Minerva Car Works produced the first pressed steel railway car in the U.S.

It appears that the Car Works did produce other cars made of pressed steel using equipment designed by Willard Pennock, as during the years 1890-96, Willard received many patents on pressed steel cars and trucks. These patents, covering the basic principles of steel car construction, were eventually sold to the Pressed Steel Car Company of Pittsburgh for $75,000. It is unknown just how many steel cars the Minerva Car Works produced, nor for whom, though it is known they produced a great many cars of combined wood and steel.

The Pennock brothers apparently hoped to expand their role in the introduction of steel cars by associating with the Illinois Steel Company, which had reopened the former Harvey, Illinois, plant of the Harvey Steel Car Company under the name of the Universal Construction Company. A steel flatcar was finished to Pennock’s design in June 1896 and sold to Carnegie Steel. Universal also produced a 40-ton ore car designed by Pennock at the Master Car Builders Association annual meeting that summer.

But Carnegie decided to consolidate things into its own hands. In early 1897 it requested bids for 200 cars from all interested steel fabricators, and in April Charles Schoen was awarded a contract for 600 steel hopper cars, bypassing both Fox and Pennock.

In 1898 the Pennock brothers liquidated their partnership and the Minerva Car Works became one of the 13 independent car builders consolidated into the American Car & Foundry Company. The Minerva works were dismantled and the equipment moved elsewhere.

Thanks to Jennifer Moser and the Minerva Public Library for their help in preparing this article.

11 April 2006

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