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

Billmeyer & Small - Page 2

In 1876, probably upon the death of Charles Billmeyer, the firm was reorganized as a joint stock company, {424} the Billmeyer & Small Company. It was quite possibly about that time that his sons George S. Billmeyer and William D. Billmeyer became associated with the firm, as well as David Small’s son Henry. A Billmeyer & Small Company advertisement from 1879 [248] lists the names of its officers as

D.E. [David] Small   President
J.H. [John] Small   V. Pres’t & Supt.
Geo. S. [George] Billmeyer   Secretary
Henry Small   Treasurer

In addition, the works were enlarged to an estimated capacity of 200 freight and 6 passenger cars per month. {248}

Billmeyer & Small Advertisement

Billmeyer & Small advertisement from the 1879 Car Builders Dictionary.

The next year, Billmeyer & Small built one of the earliest metal passenger cars. It was a 31'-0" bullet-proof car for use in Cuba. The sides were armored with 3/8" iron and 3/16" steel. Iron curtains could be drawn over the windows. It weighed 12 tons. Compare this with the Eureka, above, which was 10' longer but weighed only 8½ tons. {205}

The same 1879 advertisement previously mentioned {248} notes that —

“The Billmeyer and Small Company are pioneer and leading builders of Narrow Gauge Railroad Cars in the United States, they having up to October 1, 1878, furnished over 2,000 Narrow Gauge Freight and Passenger Cars to forty-seven (47) Narrow Gauge Roads operating in the following named States and Territories, viz: Alabama, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington, (Territory). Also to Cuba and Costa Rica, to Central and South America, and to Mexico. Some of these cars have been running upwards of seven years, many of them from five to seven years; they have been tested under all the unfavorable conditions to which cars in use can be subjected and every car has given satisfaction.”

It also mentions that —

“In addition to their main business -- the building of Railway Stock -- the Company are [sic] prepared at short notice to supply Iron Castings, Wrought Iron Work, Brasses, Wheels and Axles; also Passenger Car material of every kind for Repairs and New Work, for Wide or Narrow Gauge Rolling Stock.”

<B&S Car Works>

Billmeyer & Small Company’s car works at York, Pennsylvania, 1879

Billmeyer & Small hit its peak of production about 1885, coincident with the peaking of “narrow gauge fever” in the United States. Though members of both extended families were active in the affairs of the firm for many years, it may also have had to do with the death of David Small two years previously. Family can keep a business going, but rarely does it have the drive of the entrepreneur, particularly in a downward trending market.

One authority says the business continued until 1902 {31} while another { } says that production was suspended in 1910, perhaps suggesting that the lumber business was continued. This would be quite likely, because wooden cars were rapidly giving way to iron and steel.

Continue to Billmeyer & Small Gallery

Cast of Characters

Charles Billmeyer (c1824-1876) was born in Pennsylvania, probably at York. We don’t yet know anything about his life prior to the partnership with David Small, except that on the population schedule of the 1850 U.S. Census for York County, Pennsylvania, at age 26, his occupation is listed as “Car Builder.” {247}

By 1860, Billmeyer had amassed a small fortune. The 1860 census enumeration for the 1st Division of York Borough lists Billmeyer [spelled “Billmyer” on the census enumeration] as a “Master Car Builder” with real estate valued at $6,300 and personal property valued at $7,300 (equivalent to more than $123,000 and $142,000 respectively in today’s buying power). {208}

Billmeyer used a good part of that fortune to have a house built with hand-painted ceilings and exquisite ornamentation. It took three years to build, being completed in 1863. This example of Victorian Italianate architecture stands yet today at 225 E. Market Street in York, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. {210}

The 1870 census return for York’s 2nd Ward shows Charles Billmeyer and David E. Small as next-door neighbors. Billmeyer [again spelled “Billmyer” on the census enumeration] is listed as a “Car Builder” with real estate valued at $35,000 and personal property valued at $140,000 (equivalent to roughly $.5 million and to roughly $2 million respectively in today’s buying power). {209}

David Etter Small (1824-1883) was born at York, Pennsylvania, becoming a member of a quite extensive family. (In the 1860 census, there were 25 adult males enumerated in York County.)

We don't know yet just what his schooling or training was prior to 1852, but he was undoubtedly brought up in the lumber business in which his family was engaged.

In 1853, a year after he began building railway cars, Small lost an arm in an industrial accident.” This fact is reported in an article in the York Daily Record, sometime in 1867, when he—Republican David E. Small—was defeated in a race for the position of Yorks Chief Burgess by another David Small—the Democratic newspaper editor—apparently of the same family. {18} This also cost him a much-desired opportunity to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. “If I can bring down a partridge with my gun,” he said, “I certainly can shoot well enough to go to the defence [sic] of my country.”

By 1860, Small had amassed a small fortune. [No pun intended.] The census enumeration for the 1st Division of York Borough lists him as a “Master Car Builder” with real estate valued at $8,000 and personal property valued at $12,000 (equivalent to more than $156,000 and $235,000 respectively in today’s buying power). {206}

In 1866, Small had an office building built in downtown York that is now known as The Brownstone Building. It is described as “Italianate, with defining features including quoins, arched windows with keystones, stringcourse with dentils, and cornice with both modillion course and dentil course. Inside, it features ceiling frescoes painted by Costagini and Scataglia, two Italian artists who assisted in the painting of the U.S. Capitol Building.” {211}

The 1870 census return for York’s 2nd Ward shows Small and Billmeyer as next-door neighbors. Small is listed as a “Car Builder” with real estate valued at $35,000 and personal property valued at $250,000 (equivalent to roughly $.5 million and $3.3 million respectively in today’s buying power). {207}

Small was involved with the organization or construction of the Peach Bottom Railway from York to Peach Bottom (later to become a part of the Maryland & Pennsylvania) during the early part of the 1870s, acting as Trustee for the bondholders. {212}

In 1881, Small received U.S. Pat No. 241,080 for a plate to connect the tilting body of a dump car to the truck that, by virtue of its elevated side supports, would raise the pivotal point of the car body sufficiently high to enable it to be tilted without striking the truck too soon.

For More Information

Hardy, Grahame and Paul Darrell, eds. Narrow Gauge Railways in America, by Howard Fleming, (1875). Oakland, CA: Grahame H. Hardy, 1949, between pp. 50-51 has a side elevation of the “Eureka,” on pp. 54ff has illustrations of 10 four- and eight-wheeled freight cars of the early 1870s, and in the back (sorry, no page numbers) has 10 of the “alphabet” cars described above.

White, John H. Jr., The American Railroad Freight Car. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993 (soft cover1995), p. 205, has a drawing of one of the box cars proposed by Billmeyer & Small to the D&RG railroad in 1871.

White, John H. Jr., The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, (soft cover1985), p. 369, has drawings of a narrow gauge passenger car built for the Bradford, Bordell & Kinzua Railroad that was “occasionally used by President [Grover] Cleveland.”

The John Maxwell Collection offers for sale scale drawings of narrow gauge D&RG Chair Car #401, built 1878, and of narrow gauge D&RG “special” passenger car “F,” built 1879.

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09 April 2006

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