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Sheffield Velocipede Car Company

George S. Sheffield & Company
Sheffield Car Company

ve-loc-i-pede \ n. : a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary)

The Sheffield Velocipede Car Company had its beginnings about 1877, when George S. Sheffield, a Michigan farmer, invented a three-wheeled railroad hand-car propelled by a combination of hand and foot power used in a push-pull fashion (see illustration above). At about 140 lbs., it was light enough to be swung off the tracks to make way for trains, and made an excellent track inspection car.

In Fairbanks Morse: 100 Years of Engine Technology, C.H. Wendel tells the following story about the origin of Sheffield’s invention. (Take it for whatever it’s worth.)

“George Sheffield lived on a farm about seven miles from Sheffield, Michigan [apparently just a cross-roads town near Three Rivers, as it is not listed in our 1880 atlas of the United States, and the only Sheffield, Michigan, known to the United States Geographic Survey’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) was in Kent County, which at its nearest point is 60 miles north of Three Rivers]. The farm was a short distance from the Michigan Central Railroad. Every morning and every evening, George Sheffield walked the tracks to and from work.

“Sheffield conceived the idea of building a small car which could propel him over the railroad tracks. In the winter of 1877 he built a small three-wheeler for this very purpose. After a few experimental models he developed a model which would embody all the salient features of the F-M No. 1 Velocipede car which was sold for many years.

“The homemade Sheffield velocipede had no right to use the rail tracks, so he made his journey in darkness. One night he was headed home and discovered a broken rail. By procuring a lantern and flagging down a train, he prevented a certain disaster. However, Sheffield’s little velocipede was now made manifest to all. In recognition of his valorous act, the company permitted him to run his car between his farm and Three Rivers. Shortly after, a railway company representative called on Mr. Sheffield, asking him to build the velocipede for their own use.”

Sheffield applied for a patent on his hand-car early in 1879, and received Patent No. 213,254 only two months later (11 March 1879).

Later that same year, a business was established called George S. Sheffield & Company. The “& Company” was Warren Willits, a Three Rivers businessman who witnessed Sheffield’s patent application and was apparently the business end of the partnership [Sheffield’s “office man”]. {364}

Sheffield Advertisement from 1879 CBD

(1879 edition, Car-Builders’ Dictionary)

In December 1880, the company applied for a reissue of Sheffield’s patent with assignment to that company. Warren J. Willits witnessed that application also. This became Patent No. RE 9,571, dated 15 February 1881.

In February 1881, Sheffield and Willits were joined in the business by E.B. Linsley, another Three Rivers businessman, and on 15 June 1882 the business was incorporated as the Sheffield Velocipede Car Company, {365} with [Sheffield?] as president, [Willits?] as vice-president, and E.B. Linsley as secretary/treasurer. {311}

Later that year, the company’s foundry was expanded, and other types of railway maintenance vehicles were added to its catalog. {365}

Sheffield Advertisement from 1888 CBD

(1888 edition, Car-Builders’ Dictionary)

On 7 March 1883, application was made for a second reissue of Sheffield’s original patent, this time to the new company. The result was Patent No. RE 10,303, dated 3 April 1883.

Interestingly, during the interim Sheffield acquired two additional patents on “improvements” to his initial design. One of these was Patent No. 260,903, dated 11 July 1882, that added a backward-facing seat and modified the operating lever so two people could operate the vehicle together. The other was Patent No. 269,237, dated 19 December 1882, that modified the rider’s seat to add the up-and-down shift of the rider’s weight to the propulsive force of the operating lever. Likely both of these patents were sold to the company, but neither was reissued so far as we know.

Sheffield’s velocipedes were shipped overseas as well as being used in North America. The Buckinghamshire Railway Center in England has one they claim is a No. 1 (presumably model #1), “built not earlier than 1887, and is believed to be part of a batch purchased by the London & North Eastern Railway.” They have a picture of it in their “virtual stock book.” One source estimates Sheffield built about 4,000 of these cars.

Velocipedes were not all that Sheffield built. As the 1880 advertisement headlining this article illustrates, Sheffield built a number of other small cars and railroad appliances, most geared to railway construction and maintenance.

In early 1888, Sheffield, like most car works of the 19th century, suffered a fire that destroyed much of its works. Unlike most, however, the $22,000 loss was “fully insured.” {312}

Also in 1888, Charles H. Morse,  founder of Fairbanks, Morse & Company bought Warren Willits’ interest in the company. {365} The Sheffield product line was added to the F-M catalog, and F-M became general sales agency for all Sheffield products.

In 1891, George S. Sheffield withdrew from the company, and the next year it was reorganized as the Sheffield Car Company, with Charles H. Morse as president, W.E. Miller as vice-president, and E.B. Linsley as secretary/treasurer. {365}

By 1896, Sheffield was offering its velocipedes with a small gasoline engine. The Ft. Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel for 30 January 1896 contained the following article —

“The first engine ever run by gas and without the use of steam appeared on the Fort Wayne road Friday, and made a trial trip between Alliance and Rochester, says the Pittsburgh Post. The machine was a Sheffield velocipede, manufactured at Three Rivers, Mich., and is propelled by a small gas engine which is placed on one corner of the frame and so geared that a speed of twenty-five miles an hour can be easily developed. C.W. Squire, the agent of the Sheffield company, accompanied by J.E. McFadden, superintendent of bridges, and N.C. Alles, of Alliance, Ohio, rode on the little car for more than thirty miles. It was able to climb all the heavy grades at a fare [sic] rate of speed and the benzine tank which supplies the motive power had to be filled but once on the long trip. With such a car a bridge or track inspector’s work would be a pleasure.”

The North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript for 19 November 1898 had this to say about a “Rapid Railroad Tricycle”  —

“Thomas Casey, roadmaster on the western division of the fitchburg railroad, came to town Friday afternoon on his railroad tricycle, which was bought at the time of the big washouts to enable him to travel back and forth over the road independent of trains. The machine was manufactured by the Sheffield Car Company of Three Rivers, Mich., and is the first of the kind seen in these parts. The motive power is a little gasoline engine and the gas is ignited by an electric battery. The tricycle is capable of high speed and it is said it can be run a mile in two minutes [30 mph]. Mr. Casey left the Vermont and New York state line Friday just behind the east bound passenger train that leaves here at 12:22 p.m., and arrived in Williamstown before the train left this station. In a short time he headed his machine westward, set his gasoline engine to popping and disappeared around the curve in the railroad yard at a rate that would have enabled anybody within reach to play checkers on his coattails.”

Other than its velocipede, Sheffield’s most notable product was a patented single truck for electric street cars. Known as the “Sheffield Equalizing Truck,” it was first used in Decatur, Illinois, in 1891, apparently with success. {373} We have encountered a number of references to street railways with “Sheffield cars,” although they do not specifically name the builder. Among railways using Sheffield’s cars were the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Ventura County (California) Railway and the St. Joseph Valley Railway of Indiana (pictures above). {373}

In 1902, E.B. Linsley became general manager of the company as well as secretary/treasurer. {311}


04 October 2006

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