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

Ensign Manufacturing Company

The Ensign Manufacturing Company was founded in 1871 at Huntington, West Virginia, by William H. Barnum and Ely [Eli?] Ensign, both from prominent families of Lime Rock, Connecticut.

It was chartered (incorporated) 1 November 1872 in the state of West Virginia. The incorporators included C.P. Huntinton, D.W. Emmons (Huntington’s brother-in-law), Ely Ensign, Henry M. Ensign and several other business men.

Ensign Manufacturing Co. Advertisement

Advertisements from the 1879 Car Builders Dictionary.

William Barnum, age 53, was already a successful businessman: president of the Barnum & Richardson Manufacturing Company, a major foundry and supplier of castings for railroads. The Barnum & Richardson Company had been established in 1830 at Lime Rock (about four miles south of Salisbury) by William’s father Milo and Milo’s son-in-law, Leonard Richardson. It began as a small firm specializing in the production of clock and sash weights, plow castings, and other small items. But by 1871, the company had been reorganized several times, had expanded by acquisition, and was a major supplier of cast iron car wheels with plants both in Lime Rock/Salisbury and in Chicago.

Ely Ensign, age 30, is a bit of a mystery. We have been able to piece together only a skeleton of facts (see Cast of Characters below). We know that there were three prominent families at Lime Rock: Barnum, Richardson and Ensign. It may be that Ensign (or his family) was the source of money behind the operation. According to one authority, at that time it was not uncommon for a large early investor to take on the role of treasurer, and leave the running of the business to other partners who may have invested less but had more time to devote and/or more business experience. {78}

According to another source, {80} there was a third partner in the firm: the west-coast financier Collis P. Huntington. Just coincidentally, Huntington was another Connecticut native, born at the opposite corner of Litchfield County from Barnum just three years later. We have no idea how he became involved in the budding firm. At the time, he was involved in building the Covington & Ohio Railroad (later the Chesapeake & Ohio) eastward from the just-established town of Hungington, West Virginia: a town in which he held a major financial stake. This explains why the budding firm was established so far from the homes of the two founders.

Barnum & Richardson Advertisement 1879

Ensign Manufacturing Company’s first products were car wheels and gray iron castings. It would be almost ten years before it began building wooden cars. Within a few years the company had become one of the largest car building facilities in the U.S. This was at least partially because—as a major investor in both the Southern Pacific-Central Pacific and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroads—C.P. Huntington “encouraged” both lines to buy from Ensign. This would have been no big deal for the C&O, as Huntington was on its mainline, but would have been much less convenient for the SP-CP.

By 1895, Ensign was turning out more than 4,000 cars a year, including box cars, stock cars, gondolas, mine cars and snowplows, as well as car wheels and castings of many different kinds. Situated in the midst of the Appalachian coal area it was only natural that it produced a great many mine cars as well as coal cars for the railroads.

30-ton hopper car built by Ensign, 1891. Soon it would be building 40-tonners that looked very much like this.

In 1899, Ensign was one of the 13 independent car builders consolidated into the American Car & Foundry Company.

AC&F’s Huntington plant continued along the same lines, but growing larger and more prosperous. It produced its first all-steel cars in the winter of 1905/06.

During the 2nd World War, Huntington produced a good deal of rolling stock of British and Russian design, along with parts for Navy LSTs and locomotives for foreign service.

In 1999, the Huntington plant’s main product was ACF’s Center Flow hopper cars, of which it could build as many as 28 in a day. By 1992, it had produced more than 100,000.

Cast of Characters

William Henry Barnum (1818-1889)—a third cousin once removed of showman P.T. Barnum—was born at Boston Corner, NY. He attended the common schools and was then apprenticed to the foundryman’s trade. He then entered into partnership with his father, who was in the iron business at Lime Rock, Connecticut, doing business as Barnum Richardson & Co. By 1871, when he entered into partnership with C.P. Huntington, he was President of that firm, which by then was the Barnum Richardson Manufacturing Company, a major producer of cast iron car wheels.

Barnum had been a member of the Connecticut state house of representatives during the 1851/52 legislative year, and in 1867 became a U.S. Representative from Connecticut’s 4th District, a position he held until 1876, when he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1876 to 1879. In 1876 he became Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a post he held until his death in 1889.

Ely/Eli Ensign (1841-1902) was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut, of a prominent Connecticut family. We know he was the Treasurer of the Ensign Manufacturing Company in 1879/80, and assuredly much longer. He is credited by the curator of a collection of his papers at Marshall University in Huntington as being the founder of the company. {79} This is supported by the fact his eldest child was born  at Huntington in 1871.

Ensign served as Mayor of Huntington 1896/97. He apparently had strong ties with Connecticut as his wife and children traveled there frequently.

The Ensign family maintained its connection with the company even after it became a subsidiary of American Car & Foundry, as Ely’s son John W. Ensign was a District Manager for that company in 1910. {81}

Collis Potter Huntington (1821-1900) was one of the “Big Four” who shaped California history and economy in the nineteenth century. Born in Connecticut, he was apprenticed to a neighboring farmer. But he saved enough to establish himself first as a peddler and later as the successful owner of a country store. He came to California with the gold rush in 1849, but instead of panning for gold, he made his first small fortune by selling picks, shovels, and other supplies to the miners. At age 39 he helped finance the Central Pacific, the company that built the portion of the Transcontinental railroad from the Pacific end.

After the Civil War, officials of the Virginia Central Railroad were looking for capital to rebuild and extend their railroad. Huntington had a vision of a coast-to-coast railroad under a single operating management, and apparently thought this could become a part of it. He supplied the capital to extend the line to the Ohio River through the new state of West Virginia using the properties of the former Covington & Ohio Railroad. Crews worked from both ends as on the transcontinental railroad, with the western end crew working from the newly established town of Huntington, on the Ohio River. The line was completed 28 January 1873.

The Covington & Ohio suffered through the bad times brought on by the financial panic of 1873, and went into receivership in 1878. When reorganized it was renamed the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company. Huntington lost control of the C&O to the Morgan and Vanderbilt interests in 1888.

In 1884, Huntington was involved in the formation of the Southern Pacific Railway, of which he became president in 1890.

Huntington amassed a fortune estimated at $35 million, and he was one of the country's largest landholders. He acquired a substantial collection of art, and was generally recognized as one of the country's foremost art collectors. He left most of his collection, valued at some 3 million dollars, to the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Huntington, West Virginia was laid out in 1870/71 by a surveyor hired by C.P. Huntington, whose agent had just bought up a number of farms near the junction of the Guyandotte and Ohio Rivers. The city of Huntington was incorporated 27 February 1871 by an act of the West Virginia Legislature. By the end of the year people were flocking to the new city.

Huntington had been asked to rescue the ailing Covington (VA) & Ohio Railroad. He decided to take advantage of acts passed in 1867 by both the states of Virginia and West Virginia for the completion of a line or lines of railroad from the waters of the Chesapeake to the Ohio River. He reorganized the Covington & Ohio Railroad and renamed it the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. For the next 20 years, the city he named after himself would be the western terminus of that railroad.

For More Information

“Barnum Richardson Company Records; 1793-1925.” Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. University of Connecticut Libraries. Online collection description.

The Nevada State Railroad Museum has Southern Pacific of California box car no. 14366, built in 1882 as no. 1626. It still carries the large “Sunset” logo with “Southern Pacific Company” in use between 1891 and 1898.

09 April 2006

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