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

Lafayette Car Works

The Lafayette Car Works was founded at Lafayette Indiana in January 1880 by a group of entrepreneurs reportedly led by a Benjamin Masten of Indianapolis. It was capitalized at $150,000 and took over a 10-acre factory complex formerly occupied by the Lafayette Agricultural Works. The buildings were adapted to the needs of car building and the works was soon doing a fine business. In the Fall of that year the works built 606 coal cars for the Ohio Central Railroad.

Early in 1881, in competition with Lima, Ohio, Lafayette lost a bid to get the Wabash Railroad shops, and faced loss of the Lafayette Car Works, which employed 380, to Lima as well. But the city succeeded in keeping the car works, and its success led the Indianapolis Wheel Works to lease factory space nearby. One authority {66} claims this enterprise, run by Masten’s brother Philo, became the Lafayette Wheel Works, but a history of the Indianapolis Fire Department {67} reports that the Indianapolis Wheel Works, at First Street and Canal, burned 19 December 1889 with losses of $82,782.

By March of 1882 the car works was employing 600, and by September of that year was building 13 railroad cars a day, or 4,000 a year, selling for an average of $500.

But car building was a feast-or-famine business, and the financial panic of 1884/85 severely depressed the buying of new railroad cars. Nevertheless, by 1887 production was booming once again. The car works was again employing 600, building 25 freight cars and cabooses a day.

Sometime during this period, the Lafayette Car Works bought and combined operations  with a plant at Lima, Ohio. A history of the times {68} says one of Lima’s businesses, “Lafayette Car-Works, railroad cars and repairs, employs 300.”

29 April 1889 fire destroyed the Lafayette Wheel Works factory. It had employed up to 50 people most of the year making railroad car wheel assemblies. Firefighting was hampered when a switch engine running on Big Four tracks cut a fire hose.

The car works was further damaged two months later by a heavy windstorm. {104}

Whether as a result of that fire or not, the city fathers were once again faced with losing the car works. Management was considering a relocation to East Chicago, Marion, Muncie or Peru, Indiana, or to St. Joseph, Missouri. James J. Perrin, Adams Earl and Dr. R.M. O'Ferrall headed a committee to try to keep the plant by offering free land for expansion, free electric power, loans and better transportation. (Sounds very modern, doesn’t it?)

Whether anything was actually done, we don’t know. And we don’t know why at this time, but the fortunes of the company were going downhill. Business declined, debt and unpaid taxes mounted. Finally creditors sued, and the assets of the car works were liquidated in March 1892. The factory’s machinery was hauled away, purchased for $39,500 (almost $1 million in today’s money).

What happened to the plant buildings in Lafayette? In Lima? What about the Lima connection? Did the car works and the wheel works merge? There are lots of unanswered questions. If you have answers, would you please share them with us?

11 April 2006

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