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

Hicks Locomotive & Car Works - Page 2

The Wall Street crunch of 1907 and the ensuing several years of depressed economic activity must have hurt Hicks badly, for it went into bankruptcy in 1910.

Advertisement from 16 November 1910 Chicago Tribune newspaper.

In its Real Estate Transactions column for 12 March 1911, the Chicago Tribune reports the bankruptcy sale of the Hicks Locomotive works in Chicago Heights for $470,000 to William Barbour, who in turn conveyed it to the newly organized Central Locomotive & Car Company, of which he was President. According to the report, the plant covered 41 acres, and consisted of two large buildings. The original cost was estimated at $1.5 million, and it was said to be the largest plant in the world for repairing and selling second-hand cars and locomotives. {169}

The described property is obviously Hicks’ “West Works” at Center Avenue and Seventeenth Street, that had been devoted to locomotives and passenger cars. While we have found no similar record of the sale of the “East Works” at Center Avenue and 17th Street, that had been devoted to freight cars, it is likely it was sold to Barbour or to Central at about the same.

Hicks’ “West Works” sometime before April of 1910. Here passenger cars and locomotives were built (and rebuilt in the case of locomotives).

The United States was beginning to come out of the depression by 1912, and Central Locomotive & Car Company was beginning to advertise for skilled workers as far away as Indianapolis, Indiana. Wanted were “Freight Car repairers on wooden freight cars.” Offered was “piece work.” Applicants were advised to “bring tools!” At some point during the next 18 months, the ad was modified to add “steady employment, good wages.” {170}

By 1914, business was almost back to normal. The caption on an article in the New York Times read “PROSPERITY STRIKES BIG PLANTS IN WEST.” Among those featured was the Central Locomotive & Car Works at Chicago Heights. {171} A similar article in another newspaper indicated 2,000 men were back at work at Central and one in yet another newspaper put the number at 4,000, said to be working two shifts. {172}

But the national prosperity did not reach the railroads. The unions were organizing and labor costs were rising. The railroads were not viewed sympathetically by the citizenry, and they were being socked with ever-higher taxes. By one estimate, by the end of 1915, 1/6th of all railroad trackage in the United States was owned by railroads in receivership. And when the railroads suffer, the car building business suffers even more.

In April of 1917, the United States entered the European war that would eventually be called the 1st World War. Later that year the labor unions demanded a 40% wage increase, and the government nationalized the railroads effective 28 December 1917. The first order of business was to rebuild the car fleet that had been allowed to deteriorate to the point it was woefully inadequate to meet the demands that would be made upon it.

But it was too late for Central Locomotive & Car Company. Just four months later (April 1918), Central sold the “East Works” plant on Wentworth Avenue south of the Chicago Heights Terminal Transfer Railroad to the newly organized Liberty Car & Equipment Company. At that time it contained “about thirty-three acres, improved with a two story office building, a one story erecting shop 280 x 65 feet, steel shop, about 280 x 60 feet, blacksmith shop about 300 x 60 feet, and a tin shop 280 x 25 feet . In addition there [was] a storage and lumber yard and sawmill and engine shop.” The property was judged to have some twelve miles of railroad track! Liberty purchased all the machinery and equipment as well, for a total of some $350,000 dollars (equivalent to more than $4.8 million in today’s buying power). {174}

And just two months after that, Thomas Barbour et al. (another account says Robert Barbour et al., but perhaps they were each part of the other’s “et al.”) as trustee(s) conveyed the “East Works” plant to the Parrett Tractor Company for some $250,000 consideration (more than $3.4 million in today’s buying power). {173}

The “trustee” notation suggests that the sale of the latter plant, at least, was part of a bankruptcy liquidation, but so far, at least, we have found no other evidence of this.

So what did Hicks and Central build?

By all indications, both Hicks and Central specialized in rebuilding and reselling both locomotives and cars. But they also, at one time or another built at least a few new locomotives. But so far we have located only one. If you know of any Hicks/Central locomotives, won’t you let us know?

Hicks built interurban cars. The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago (later Chicago, Aurora & Elgin) was one of its customers. Wooden trolley cars #309 and #310 running together on the express train from Chicago to Aurora were referred to by some as “the Hicks twins.”

And it did build at least one gasoline-electric interurban motor car: combination car no. 101 of the St. Joseph Valley Traction Co. of Indiana, which it outshopped in 1905, and which received several pages in its 1908 Hicks promotional book.

Hicks gas-electric and trailer ca. 1908

Hicks gasoline-electric motor car with trailer. Click on image to go to another page with lots more details.

And Hicks/Central built passenger cars. The 1908 Hicks promotional book has half a dozen pages of photos and descriptions of their “specialty:” private cars. Here’s a whole page of them.

Several Hicks/Central passenger or interurban cars are in, or under restoration by various railway museums.

Chicago, Aurora & Elgin #309 is currently residing at the Illinois Railway Museum at Union, Illinois. It was one of 10 large wooden interurbans of the “railroad” type that Hicks built in 1906/07 for the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railroad. (Predecessor to the Chicago Aurora & Elgin, fondly known as the “Roarin’ Elgin,” probably at least partly because it ran cars like these.)

Lake Superior & Ishpeming coach #64 and Kewaunee Green Bay & Western baggage-mail #77 are at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum at West Freedom, Illinois.

Virginia & Truckee express-mail #20 (second), built by Hicks in 1907, is at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. It replaced the original #20, built in the V&T shops, which was renumbered #21 upon receipt of the Hicks car.

Yosemite Valley observation car #330, one of a “matched train set” of three cars built in 1907, and claiming to be the only observation car they ever built, is under restoration by a private party. You can read about it on their website. This car has an observation deck 10'-0" long and 9'-6" wide!

We have been told that William Ferguson McInnes was an owner of, or a worker at, the Central Locomotive and Car Works and reportedly designed a McInnes Car and a Presidential Car. This clue is supported by the 1910 Census, which shows a 42 year old William McInnes living in a near western suburb of Chicago and reporting his employment as “Assistant Manager ” in the field of “Railway Equipment.” Can you tell us more about this? His grand-daughter would surely appreciate it!

What we do know both Hicks and Central built were tons and tons of freight cars. Both the trade press and the newspapers of the time are literally filled with announcements of freight car orders being directed to these companies. Here’s a whole page of them.

Liberty Car & Equipment Company —

Liberty Car & Equipment is a bit of a mystery. We have no reason to believe it was a reorganization of Central Locomotive and Car, but it might very well have been, as the article describing the sale of the “East Works” describes Liberty as

“... a new concern, with capital stock of $750,000, [which] will engage in the immediate construction and repair of steel and wood freight cars, and is said to have large orders on hand. The parties interested all have been long identified with large car repair and building projects in the Chicago and Calumet districts.” [Italics ours.]

It goes on to name P.H. Joyce as President of the new concern.

The name suggests Liberty was set up specifically to take advantage of the USRA orders for lots of new freight cars, but it was still in business in 1920, as the Chicago Daily Tribune for 15 March 1920 mentions injuries to a worker at Liberty.

Another possible tie-in between Hicks/Central/Liberty is the 1931 obituary of Albert M. Hicks, which indicates he retired in 1919 “after many years’ association with the Hicks Locomotive & Car Co. of Chicago.” While obits are notoriously inaccurate, for what it’s worth, remember that Hicks became Central in 1911, and that Central sold its works to Liberty in 1918. Know more than we do about this? Please share it with us.

Other Hicks pages you might want to view (lots of images) —

Cast of Characters

Frank M. Hicks (1858-1910+) was born in Ohio. He was a widower living with his sister in Chicago at the time of the 1900 U.S. Census, and he listed his occupation as “Salesman (R.R. Co.).” Ten years later he was living with a wife of 8 years and listed his occupation as “Manufacturer - Car building.”

Was Frank M. Hicks related to the Minnesota Hickses (Henry Clinton Hicks and Bohn [that’s no typo] Chapin Hicks) whose patents were the basis for the Hicks Stock Car Company? (It's quite possible, as his sister Carrie, with whom he was living in 1900, was born in Minnesota. In addition, the patent applications of Bohn Chapin Hicks seem to show that he moved from Minneapolis to Chicago sometime between March 18 and September 8, 1890.)

If you can shed some light on these Hickses, PLEASE share it with us!

For More Information

Hicks Locomotive & Car Works. Chicago, IL: Self Published, n.d. [1908?].

“Issued in the Interest of a Better Acquaintance Between the Users of Railway Equipment and the Producers.” A corporate promotion piece with lots of photographs and relatively little text. Lots of advertising by suppliers a la The Car Builders Dictionary. This volume is very hard to find. Thankfully, virtually all of it can be found somewhere on this website.

Scale drawings of Virginia & Truckee Combination Car #20, Built by Hicks ca. 1907, can be found in the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette for Jan/Feb 2005.

09 April 2006

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