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

Fales & Gray

Tracy & Fales
The Grove Works
The Grove Car Works

It appears the partnership of Tracy & Fales began sometime in the 1840s (at least before April 1849) at Hartford, Connecticut, with John R. Tracy and Thomas J. Fales. According to White, {113} their Grove Works had “the backing of the town’s most prominent citizens” and “the plant was the best that money could buy.”

Just what they built is anyone’s guess, although the advertisement below gives some clues.

(American Railway Times, 28 March 1850)

A letter from Charles Augustus Tracy to John R, Tracy, dated 25 November 1850, describes the reception in Georgia of railroad cars manufactured by Tracy & Fales. {115}

As of 1 September 1852, the partnership appears to have been dissolved and/or Mr. Tracy’s interest replaced by John S. Gray, though Mr. Tracy apparently remained involved in the business. {114} The partnership thereafter would be known and go down in history as Fales & Gray, because ...

On 2 March 1854, a boiler newly installed at the Fales & Gray car works near Dutch Point in Hartford, exploded with disastrous results. Nine men died immediately and 10 or 12 died of their injuries. Dozens more were injured. “The west end of the building was in ruins—heavy shafting, pullies [sic], and massive timbers being mixed in a common pile, and a general ruin. The boiler, which held in its grasp but a few hours before the immense power which drove the machinery of the great works, lay scattered about, torn in shreds, as if it had been but mere paper.” {116}

Rumors abounded, such as that the stationary engineer had “stepped out for a beer,” but later testimony before a Coroner’s Jury established that an old boiler incapable of making enough steam to drive all the works’ machinery had recently been replaced with a much higher quality one that perhaps made steam too fast. It appears that the stationary engineer, one John McCune, had stepped away briefly, thinking—on the basis of past experience with the old boiler— that he had a bit of time before needing to add water to the boiler. But the new boiler, much more efficient than the old, had boiled off sufficient water to have exposed one or more of the flues, and when he did pump in water, the cold water quite literally exploded. {117}

The website of the Hartford Hospital picks up the story: “At the time Hartford had no general hospital, and the injured could only go home and seek medical care from their private physicians. For many, however, their meager earnings and newcomer status as immigrants meant that medical care was unavailable. From that disaster came two of today’s well-known Hartford institutions: the Hartford Steam Boiler & Inspection Company, brought into being to help avoid similar tragedies, and Hartford Hospital.”

The newspapers {116} noted that surviving employees were almost immediately put back to work, some assisting in the repair of buildings and machinery, and others at Lincoln’s and at the Woodruff & Beach factories which were lending their facilities so that manufacturing could be continued, thus assuring continuing income to the company and continued wages for the men. In addition, a new building was to be erected near Taylor’s planing mill on Dutch Point. The following advertisement began appearing in the American Railway Times just three weeks after the explosion (23 March 1854).

(American Railway Times, 5 October 1854)

We suspect it may have taken a bit longer to get back on their feet financially, though the only direct evidence we have is a complaint of one William F. Staunton to the New York Supreme Court demanding $2,050.32 in default of a debt for that amount. A judgment was apparently rendered 24 October 1854, and had not been paid as late as 29 January 1855. {446}

We know almost nothing of the workings of Fales & Gray until its next disaster.

On Friday, 15 March 1861, fire broke out in the “old car shop of Tracy & Fales ... now known as the Grove Works” on Potter Street. The building was of brick, 250' long by 50' wide, and housed several small industries besides the Grove Works. The fire completely gutted the building and the walls fell in. {118} Another source says this was the same building that in March 1854 housed the Fales & Gray railroad car works, and this appears borne out by the description of the building at that time.

That the building was shared suggests that business was not so good as formerly, perhaps due to the fact that the Civil War was now in full swing. Anyway, nothing more is known of this car builder (at least not at this time).

Cast of Characters

John Ripley Tracy ( - ) was “from New York City” when he married Charlotte Gray, daughter of the deceased Samuel Gray, 12 December 1843. [Relation to John S. Gray?]

member of the CT state Senate, 1875? From the 8th District, Griswold, New London County?

Thomas J. Fales (c1816-1854+) was (not found in 1860 census index).

Secy. of Colt's Patent Fire Arms Mfg. Co., ?

John S. Gray (c1817-1860+) was born in Connecticut. Married Mary Wakinson of Hartford, 9 May 1848. In the 1860 census enumeration his occupation is shown as “hardware merchant.”

For More Information

An Account of the Terrible Explosion at Fales & Gray's Car Manufactory, Hartford, Conn., Which Occurred on Thursday, March 2nd, 1854. With a List of the Killed and Wounded, Incidents, &c., with the Official Report of the Testimony Before the Coroner's Jury, Their Verdict, Resolutions, &c. (Hartford, CT: E.T. Pease & Co., 1854).

11 April 2006

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