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

American Fireproof Steel Car Company

The American Fireproof Steel Car Company was organized at Chicago, Illinois, in 1888, apparently as an Illinois corporation.

Various inventors and promoters had experimented with the design and construction of metal cars since as far back as 1845. A full discussion of the topic can be found in White/Passenger and in White/Freightcars.

In the area of freight cars, the concern was two-fold: 1) maximizing the ratio of load capacity to tare weight (deadweight of the car itself), and 2) durability - maximizing the working life of a car and minimizing the frequency of repairs.

In the area of passenger cars there were two additional concerns: 3) strength of construction - minimizing the possibility of injury to passengers in case of an accident - and 4) minimizing the possibility of injury to passengers by fire.

It is hard for us moderns to imagine the danger experienced by riders in a wooden car heated by a wood- or coal-burning stove that in many cases was not even bolted to the floor. Even the smallest accident could become the occasion for fire. All that was necessary was to bump, jostle or tip the car, and a red-hot stove could tip over and whoosh! the whole car goes up like tinder!! Many inventors put a great deal of thought into a variety of heating devices designed to eliminate or at least minimize such a possibility.

The logical conclusion of all this thought, however, was to eliminate wood from the construction of a passenger car. Thus a metal car was called-for, and iron (later steel) was the logical choice: thus a “fireproof steel car.” Unfortunately, railroaders found wooden cars more desirable for a myriad of reasons, foremost of which was initial cost.

The first steel car actually constructed in the United States was built by Edward Y. Robbins, whose efforts included founding the Robbins Cylindrical Steel Car Company in 1884. But Robbins’ car and several that followed, met resistance not only because of being made of metal, but because their appearance was so different from “traditional” passenger cars. {229}

So in 1887, William W. Green and James Murison designed a car that was made mostly of metal but looked like the traditional wooden car. White calls their concoction a “faithful reproduction” of a wooden car. But in fact, it incorporated too much of that actual material to be fireproof. Their prototype—a railway mail car—was built by, and went into service on, the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railway [Monon Route] in January of 1888. {229}

American Fireproof's RMS Car

Green and Murison’s imitation wood car made of steel and wood by the Monon Railroad shops. (Poor’s Manual of Railroads, 1891)

Shortly thereafter, the American Fireproof Steel Car Company was organized in Chicago. Capital stock was $1.5 million, of which $1 million had been issued at the time of the corporation’s third annual meeting. By that time the corporation claimed to have established three branches of the parent factory: at Glasgow, Virginia, Bridgeport, Alabama, and Des Plaines, Illinois. But no cars had been manufactured by them . . . yet. {228}

The “parent factory” had been established at Harvey, Illinois, about three miles south of George Pullman’s company town of Pullman, Illinois, which itself was several miles south of Chicago. {229}

At the corporation’s third annual meeting, plans were announced to send out “a special train, consisting entirely of steel fire-proof cars . . . within the next two or three weeks for a trip over the country to show the new cars to railroad men. The mail car, the first to be built by the company, [would] be included in the number.” {228}

Also at that meeting, James Murison, William W. Green, R.A. Brett, George M. How, W.H. Turner, C.L. Peyton and William Armstrong were elected Directors. Later in the day, the Directors elected George M. How as President, James Murison as Vice-President, C.L. Peyton as Treasurer, Robert Carmichael as Secretary, and William W. Green as General Manager. {228}

At least five freight cars were constructed, and by July were on exhibit at the Wisconsin Central depot in Chicago. The car built for the Monon Route was being touted as having “had a remarkable record, having gone through two wrecks safely, while companion cars of wood were ruined.” {230}

By August of 1891, a group of cars was on exhibit at the Grand Central Depot [of the Illinois Central RR] “prior to going into service on the Northern Pacific,” and the company’s offices had moved from from No. 817 in the Rookery Building to a more prestigious location at No. 210 LaSalle Street. {231}

White/Passenger indicates the “three branches of the parent factory” [5th paragraph, above] never worked out, and that Green and Murison’s hopes were “rekindled by a wealthy lumber dealer, T.W. Harvey, and a plant was built near Chicago, 3 miles south of the Pullman factory,” citing the Railroad Gazette for 28 February 1890. This must have been the “parent factory,” since the date precedes that of the third corporate meeting.

09 April 2006

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