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

Springfield's Four

Dean, Packard & Mills
Nettleton & Bartlett
Springfield Car & Engine Company
Wason Manufacturing Company

Prologue - 1636

When most of us think of car-building in Springfield, Massachusetts, we think of the name Wason. But at one point in the mid-1800s Springfield had not one, not two, but four car builders! In this article we will tell you how that came about in the context of Springfield’s industrial history.

Springfield was founded on the banks of the Connecticut River in 1636 by William Pynchon, largely to facilitate the fur trade along that river, which wends its way from the Canadian border southward through New Hampshire and Vermont, then through Massachusetts, and then Connecticut, finally emptying into Long Island Sound. This was just 16 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

Though the next 158 years of its history is filled with interesting stories, the next thing of interest to us occurred in April 1794, when the government of the young United States of America established its first federal arms manufactory there. The armory attracted skilled craftsmen and mechanics from all over, and these men—upon leaving the employ of the armory—often established themselves in business at Springfield or took their expertise to other local businesses, making Springfield an “industrial” city much in advance of others in New England.

The War of 1812 was particularly instrumental in bringing such people to Springfield, as weapons production was greatly stimulated. When the war ended, local entrepreneurs were quick to put such men to work in developing cotton mills and manufactories. With the river providing both transportation and water power, by the 1820s Springfield’s had become a truly industrial economy.

Chester William ChapinIn 1830, Chester W. Chapin bought the steamship franchise from Springfield to Hartford, Connecticut, on the Connecticut river. [For disclosure purposes, let it be known that Chester was the writer’s 4th cousin 6 times removed on his mother’s side.] At that time steamships on the rivers were virtually the only way raw materials and manufactured products could be transported, thus the expression “shipped.”

But there was a revolution in transportation in the offing: that very year the Baltimore & Ohio, America’s 1st “public” railroad, was opened for business. Nevertheless, it would be almost 10 years before Springfield would have any railroad connection to replace the steamships.

Railroad Days - 1839

On 1 October 1839, the Western Railroad opened its line from Springfield eastward to Boston. Fortunately, the town was on the east bank of the river. It would be several more years before it was bridged and the line extended westward to Albany.

In December 1844, the Hartford & Springfield Railroad, united with the Hartford & New Haven Railroad of Connecticut, opened a line to Springfield from the south. And just a year later, the Connecticut River Railroad opened its line from Springfield northward to Northampton. Springfield was now truly the “crossroads of New England.” (And guess who was the President of the Connecticut River Railroad? None other than cousin Chester, who had exchanged steamboats for locomotives!)

By 1845, Springfield had rail connections from every direction, and the subject of railroads was on everyone’s lips as railroads in Massachusetts and the surrounding states were chartered, incorporated, merged (sometimes before they had even laid a rail), and completed. And one thing New England railroads needed was cars built in New England.

It was thus sometime in 1845 that Thomas Wason and his brother Charles—a pair of carriage and wagon builders doing business as T. & C. Wason—decided to try their hand at building railway cars. Their shop was so small their 1st freight cars stuck out the end. And that first year they built just 12 of them.

Everyone Wants in the Water - 1845/46

But others had the same idea the Wasons had, and perhaps thought they could do even better than they. Thus it was that sometime during the next several years, a Springfield businessman named Reuel Dean took into partnership a machinist named Elijah Packard and a well-connected young man named Isaac Mills, and they formed the firm of Dean, Packard & Mills.

— also —
CAR WHEELS and AXLES fitted and furnished
at short notice; also
of various kinds; and
The above may be had at order at our Car Factory,

Reuel Dean
Elijah Packard
Isaac Mills


Facsimile of an advertisement from the 19 May 1849 issue of American Railroad Journal.

In 1848, “cousin Chester” (W. Chapin) and two other Springfield men, J.M. Blanchard and W.C. Averill established a corporation they called the Springfield Car & Engine Company, capitalized at $100,000: a whale of a lot of money for those days, equivalent to roughly $2 million today, but most likely nowhere near entirely paid-in. They began by building 4-wheeled work cars for the Western Railroad, one of many in which “cousin Chester” had an interest. And that first year they also built a locomotive for the Old Colony Railroad.

About that time, another company was started, or simply began building railway cars: Nettleton & Bartlett. We have found nothing about this firm other than what is disclosed in the advertisement it ran from late fall of 1849 to about August of 1850. But these ads contain a testimonial letter from the Western Railroad dated 1849, and mention cars being “in use for the last 12 months,” suggesting they were in business (or simply building cars) from sometime in 1848.

Nettleton & Bartlett’s advertisements said they manufacture railroad cars “in all their various branches” and especially “passenger, post office, baggage, freight, and hand cars,” including “an entirely new description of dumping cars for grading roads, transporting coal, brick, stone, and other kinds of freight.” These dumping cars are the ones “in use for the past 12 months.”

We can’t help but wonder if these were the same general type of 4-wheeled work cars built by Springfield Car & Engine, since they were built for the same railroad. Did Nettleton & Bartlett simply see an opportunity to “expand” into more lucrative prospects? If you have information about this company, won’t you share it with us?)

The End of the Beginning / The Beginning of the End -1848

But as Dean, Packard & Mills were “expanding,” Springfield Car & Engine was either shutting down its entire works,  or at least the car-building part of it, as the Wason brothers, who were looking to expand their own business, bought the machinery of the Springfield Car & Engine Company’s car department, leased the shop for five years, and immediately began to build all kinds of cars, giving special attention to passenger cars. With more appropriate facilities, the Wasons’ business increased rapidly and they began to make a name for themselves.

But one or more of the following began to have its effect —

o lack of capital
o overblown enthusiasm for a too-small market
o effective competition from the Wasons

By 1849, the Dean, Packard & Mills partnership was apparently breaking up. We can’t know that for sure, but the evidence certainly points that way. Elijah Packard had become involved with Eliam Barney and Ebenezer Thresher in setting up the Dayton Car Works at Dayton, Ohio. Begun as Thresher, Packard & Company, it would eventually become Barney & Smith. Though Packard appears to have stayed less than a year, when he “returned,” it was not to Springfield.

In mid-1850, Dean, Packard & Mills failed. Assets were supposedly in excess of liabilities—on paper—but not in reality.

By August of 1850, Nettleton & Bartlett’s advertisements had disappeared from the American Railway Times. We don't know what became of that firm. Perhaps they went back to building carriages and wagons or whatever it was they did before their brief foray into railway car building.

Sometime around 1850/51, Thomas Wason’s brother Charles left to set up his own car-manufactory in Cleveland. (Looking for greener pastures?) Thomas Wason took in several new partners, and the business was reorganized as the T.W. Wason Company. It is very likely this infusion of new capital, coupled with an established reputation, that kept this business alive while all the rest were in decline.

In 1851, an advertisement in the American Railway Times for 20 March 1851 offered, “For sale: six eight wheel house freight cars—Coupled and ready for use. Also, for sale or rent the Machine Shop and Car Factory recently occupied by Messrs. Dean Packard & Mills, with a Twenty-four Horse Power Engine in the same.”

In 1852, Averill and Blanchard, who seem to have been the “mechanical” end of the Springfield Car & Engine Company either hired or took as a partner C.W. Kimball, who took over the locomotive shop. That same year, they found a new financial backer, Eleazar Ripley (apparently in place of Chester Chapin. The firm was reorganized as the Springfield Locomotive Manufacturing Company. [No more cars!] Unfortunately, Ripley died a month later.

Under the category Railway Car Manufacturers in the business section of the Springfield city directory for 1851-1852 it says, “The only car manufacturing establishment in Springfield is now carried on at the old car and engine company’s building near the depot, by Mr. Thomas W. Wason.”


By 1853, Isaac Mills, formerly of Dean, Packard & Mills, is known to have entered his father-in-law’s coal business, of which he would eventually become owner.

In 1853, William C. Averill of the Springfield Locomotive Company was killed when he became entangled in a drive belt. (Remember, in those days machines were driven by long exposed leather belts connected to an overhead main-shaft that was, in turn, driven by a steam engine, or more likely in this case, by a water wheel.)

In 1854, Caleb Parker, who reportedly had worked for Dean, Packard & Mills, bought Ebenezer Thresher’s interest in E. Thresher & Company, the predecessor to Barney & Smith and the same company that Elijah Packard had helped start in 1849, and reportedly moved the machinery once owned by Dean, Packard & Mills to Dayton, Ohio, where that firm became Barney, Parker & Company.

By the fall of 1855, Blanchard and Kimball of the Springfield Locomotive Company had produced a total of 19 locomotives. In March of the following year, they declared bankruptcy and Blanchard left. The Receivers were unable to put the business back together, and the company’s assets were sold at auction to Stephen C. Bemis (Bemis & Company) who shortly thereafter sold out to the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad.

And the T.W. Wason Company went marching on . . .

For More Information

Bliss, George. Historical Memoir of the Western Railroad. Springfield, MA: Samuel Bowles & Company, 1863.

Historical data concerning the chartering and construction of the Western Railroad and its extension into New York state. Also includes the economics of the railroad up to 1862.

20 April 2006

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