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

Thomas Castor Carriage Works

The Thomas Castor Carriage Works was begun in the spring of 1833 by Thomas Castor and his older brother Peter. Thomas, who had just completed his apprenticeship, did the carriage building while Peter did the blacksmithing. Besides carriages they manufactured a patented kitchen range they called the “Castor Range.” {350}

The Castors1st works were located at 4620-4622 Frankford Avenue in the Frankford Borough of Philadelphia. The population of Frankford grew slowly until about 1840 it was 2,300. Peter and Thomas’ business grew with it. By 1855 Frankford’s population had nearly doubled, and Peter and Thomas had moved their works to larger quarters at the northwest corner of Frankford Avenue and Allen Street (later Overington). There they built additional shop buildings in 1856. {350}

Thomas Castor’s business card from about 1873/75.

It was probably about that time that the Castors first built horse drawn streetcars for local transportation. Horace Castor, Thomas’ grandson, writing in 1934, {350} says that —

“So feared was this ‘rapid transit’ of the horse cars that Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper at that time printed a cartoon showing galloping horses, like those in Ben Hur, a driver with his long whip extended, and women fleeing from in front of the raised hoofs [sic] of the horses, and clinging to their children.”

[We have seen this illustration, but don't know where. If you know where we can get a copy, would you share that information with us?]

Castor family tradition says Thomas and Peter built the first horse cars to run on steel rails in the city of Philadelphia.

As time went by, the people of Frankford became more and more transportation-minded. Meetings were held to discuss improved transportation to Philadelphia. Thomas actively participated in these, both as a citizen and as a builder of horse-drawn streetcars. {350}

But about this time, transportation as such was overshadowed by the financial panic of 1857, which caused the demise of almost 5,000 companies nationwide. Apparently the Castors were able to weather this period, even going so far as to hire young men of the community to complete a section of street railway left unfinished due to adverse financial conditions. Horace Castor {350} says —

“The first cars over the new line were four in number and were of the double deck type . . . beautifully painted, trimmed and equipped, an appeal to local pride was made by artistically painted pictures portraying familiar Frankford scenes, executed by artists of no mean ability, who decorated the panels of the cars.”

Peter left the partnership in 1861, {350} for what reason we do not know, nor do we know what he commenced to do, but we do know Thomas continued the business. He built many fine wagons and carriages as well as horse-drawn streetcars. He was especially well known for his extensive business in circus wagons of all kinds as a great many circus folk wintered in the Frankford area. His shop was noted for its fine and richly decorated menagerie and band wagons. Among his customers were P.T. Barnum, Adam Forepaugh, John O’Brien, George Batcheller and John Doris.

Among the many orders for horse drawn streetcars was one for double-deck horse cars for the Fifth and Sixth and Race and Vine Street Passenger Railways. The upper deck of these cars was achieved by means of a spiral staircase [“ladder” might be more appropriate], that Thomas was later to patent (see chart below). These “modern” conveyances were unheated, and were illuminated by smoky oil lamps. {350}

When Thomas died, 4 August 1884, three of his sons, Charles M. Castor, T. Ellwood Castor and William O Castor formed a partnership under the name Thomas Castor’s Sons to continue the business. The fourth son, Lewis F. Castor, was invited to join in the partnership, but declined, preferring to established his own independent business, though he shared office space with his brothers and utilized their blacksmithing services from time-to-time.

We don’t know at this time what became of the firm of Thomas Castor’s Sons, or what they produced.

Cast of Characters

Thomas Castor (1810-1884) was born in the Frankford Borough of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third son of the third son of Hans Georg Gerster, who emigrated from Switzerland in 1736 to what would later become the United States. {350}

Thomas became an orphan at age 14 and went to live with his sister Hannah. At age 18, he was apprenticed to Philadelphia wheelwright [wagon and carriage builder] Benjamin Shallcross. He completed his apprenticeship shortly before Christmas of 1832, but worked for Shallcross until the following spring, when he and his older brother Peter started their own business. {350}

They labored at building carriages, wagons and sleighs about 16 years before they built their 1st horse-drawn streetcar. After that they built a good many of them.

Thomas was an active member of the Frankford community, serving on the old Borough Council. He was a member of the Vigilance Committee and the Frankford Land Association. He also served 30 years as Captain of Engineers for the Washington Volunteer Fire Company No. 13. He was a charter member of the Frankford Mutual Fire Insurance Company and a director of the Oxford Plank Road Company.

Thomas Castor was an inventor as well as a wheelwright and mechanic. Some of his patents are listed below. We’re quite sure there are more. If you know of others, would you share the information with us?

Pat. No. Date Description Remarks
9,164 3 Aug 1852 Dumping wagon with moveable dumping position.  
27,203 21 Feb 1860 Mounting for roof-top seats and spiral ladder to access them.  
32,681 2 Jul 1861 “Clamshell” type sliding doors on the back of the car with a lever arrangement so they can be controlled from the front of the car.  
45,316 6 Dec 1864 “Dogs” so aligned as to remove objects from the rails before the wheels run over them.  
RE6,057 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of the pat. no. 32,681 rear entrance with inside steps. Assigned to John Stephenson
RE6,058 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of the pat. no. 32,681 rear entrance with much more detailed description of the rear entrance and “clamshell” doors. Assigned to John Stephenson
RE6,059 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of part of pat. no. 32,681 emphasizing a fare-box that was illustrated in that patent but neither described nor claimed. Assigned to John Stephenson
RE6,060 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of part of pat. no. 32,681 emphasizing an overhead lighting device that was illustrated in that patent but neither described nor claimed. Assigned to John Stephenson
RE6,061 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of pat. no. 32,681 seemingly claiming everything all over again in much more detail. Assigned to John Stephenson
RE6,062 22 Sep 1874 Reissue of part of pat. no. 32,681emphasizing the lighting device and the fare box. Assigned to John Stephenson

Peter Castor (1805-1883) was born at Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


09 April 2006

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