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

Toronto Car Factory

McLean & Wright
Messrs. McLean & Fleck
McLean, Wright & Company
Messrs. Wright & Sutherland
Sutherland & McLean

The story of the Toronto Car Factory began in Montreal about 1846, when the Montreal Coach factory—builders of wagons and coaches—consolidated its two factories, leaving one empty. Two employees, Duncan McLean and Thomas Wright, formed a partnership and took over the vacated plant. Within two years they had taken over both plants, and had decided to try their hands at railway car building.

McLean & Wright built cars for several local railroads and then in 1850 began advertising more widely. They soon had orders from New York State, New England and western Ontario. They outgrew their center city location, and in 1852 built a large new plant closer to canal and rail transportation.

That same year they received an order from the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Union Railroad, and in order to be closer to that line, erected a new factory in Toronto. There were apparently local interests involved, as there they did business as McLean, Wright & Company. By July of 1853 they had completed 78 cars. But only a year later Duncan McLean and Thomas Wright went their separate ways, McLean to continue car building While Wright went back to carriage building.

McLean was soon joined by Alexander Fleck, and they did business in Montreal as Messrs. McLean & Fleck. Fleck had been a blacksmith and builder of agricultural implements. The addition of Fleck’s expertise allowed the firm to establish its own foundry instead of being dependent on metal parts shipped in from the United States. But circumstances conspired to make orders scarce, and in early 1855 Duncan McLean and Alexander Fleck closed down their Montreal plant and dissolved their partnership. Fleck continued on in the railway appliance business in Montreal, while McLean went back to Toronto, where the McLean, Wright & Company firm still did business.

During the time that McLean had been engaged in Montreal, the Toronto factory had been greatly enlarged, reflecting a sizeable number of orders from the Grand Trunk Railway and others, as well as car maintenance work done for the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron. One authority {69} estimates that altogether McLean, Wright & Company produced 363 cars for the OS&H, including 12 first class coaches, four second class coaches, eight baggage-mail cars, 123 box cars, 153 flat  cars, 40 four-wheeled gravel cars, 20 four-wheeled hand cars and three snowplows. For the Grand Trunk, McLean & Company produced 872 cars{70}

First class coaches 24
Second class coaches 17
Composite coaches 1
Baggage cars 8
Baggage & PO 14
Total passenger cars 64
Snow plows 7
Flat cars & log cars 501
Ballast cars 22
Box cars 278
Total freight cars 801

Nevertheless, the partnership of McLean, Wright & Company ended shortly after McLean’s return and the factory was sold to Henry P. Wright and John B. Sutherland. Sutherland was a Scottish born carpenter who had emigrated to the United States, where he was involved in several car building operations. Little is known of Wright’s background, nor is it known whether he was related to Thomas Wright, the previous owner.

The new partners were in for a shock. Car orders simply did not materialize, and soon they were advertising for general lumber dressing, millwork and smithing. Wright left the company in 1856, and Duncan McLean returned to become Sutherland’s partner. The Toronto car factory now became Sutherland & McLean, with Sutherland being the senior partner.

And now orders began coming in, and the factory, which had been down to employment of only 50 was soon advertising for more workers. But on 16 May 1857 it all came to an end: fire reduced the factory to ashes. The owners suffered an uninsured loss of $50 to $60,000, and the workers lost all their tools.

John Sutherland returned to the United States, where he continued in the railway business. Duncan McLean apparently attempted to fulfill the outstanding orders, possibly using what was left of the car factory. But circumstances were against him, as the financial panic that swept the United States in 1857 affected Canada as well. The details are unknown, but by 1861 Duncan McLean was completely out of the car building industry and doing general carpentry.

Postscript (?) —

In the September 1998 issue of Carter Narrow Gauge Chronicles—newsletter of the SPCRR (see our LINKS page)—Randy Hees tells the story of Northern California car builder D. McLean & Co. McLean’s business is listed in only a single issue of the San Francisco Business Directory. McLean’s advertisement looks something like this:

San Francisco R. R. Car Factory
D.  McLEAN & CO.
Manufacturers of
Fourth Street between Bryant and Brannan,
Carriage Work of all Descriptions Repaired at Low Rates.

Randy says,

“The first reference I have found to McLean is for his brother, John, who is working as a carriage trimmer, in the 1863/64 [city] directory. Duncan appears the following year listed as a Forman at Henry Casebolt’s car works ... while John was a conductor on the Central Railroad. After three years with Casebolt, in 1867, Duncan McLean forms his own company. The following year, Duncan and his company are missing, and John is back at work as a conductor, this time for the North Beach and Mission Railroad.”

Could this be the same Duncan McLean?

For More Information

Ashdown, Dana William. Iron & Steam; A History of the Locomotive and Railway Car Builders of Toronto. Toronto, ON: Robin Brass Studio, 1999.

11 April 2006

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