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

John Stephenson Car Co. - Page 3

When asked by Scientific American {13} how he won an order from the North Metropolitan Tramway of London for 25 cars against 19 competitors, John Stephenson said —

“Our cars weigh less by one-half than those made in Germany. They can be procured for £35 less than Birmingham can quote. The cars we furnish Glasgow can be operated from a stable one-third smaller than their own cars require. The nature of American woods has much to do with our success. The selection and preparation of material are no light jobs; the process of preparation requires three to four years. American irons are tougher than the English and we can get the required strength with less weight. We use white oak, white ash, poplar, basswood, hickory, beech, maple and pine—woods all easily procurable by us, while the English are obliged to use teakwood. Because their woods are inferior, they find it necessary to reinforce with iron, at the expense of lightness. . . . We meet with considerable opposition abroad, and the press is used to raise a cry against any corporation sending money away from home, especially in these hard times.”

But in 1888, 79 year old John Stephenson publicly switched from the Republican party to the Democrat, complaining that the tariff on raw materials established under the Republican administration had effectively put him out of selling anything overseas other than parts. “The Europeans have begun to manufacture for themselves,” he said, “they can build cars that look like mine so much cheaper that they prefer to build their own.” He incidentally mentioned that he currently employed only 400 men but could employ as many as 500 if business were better. {282}

Stephenson 1889 Advertisement

By 1890, the Stephenson company was in decline. Its plant was antique, its management was antiquated, and the competition was growing. John Stephensons death in 1893, coupled with the financial panic of that year, set off another round of financial problems for the company that resulted in the sale of its New York properties. But this was actually for the better, as the cramped city quarters had made building the newer, larger cars, a logistic nightmare.

The Stephenson company operations were moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1898, amid hopes that it could reestablish its leadership as a streetcar builder. But fiscal problems followed and the company went into voluntary bankruptcy.

Omaha Street Railway Car by Stephenson Stephenson-built car of the Omaha Street Railway, 1890. Stephenson built both the body and the power truck.

By the summer of 1900, the Stephenson company was in trouble again, and 12 June 1900 the 80 acres of ground and seven buildings constituting the Stephenson Car Works was sold for $226,000 to Joseph C. Willets and Adolph Wimpfheimer of New York representing the creditor banks. The Brill Car Company tried to acquire the plant, but did not bid high enough. The purchasers said the plant, which had been in the hands of Receiver Robert A. Wilcox, would be reopened immediately and that they expected to employ 1,000 men. {284}

It appears that this is why Peter M. Kling—formerly with the St. Louis Car Company—was hired as Stephenson’s general manager. He expanded the shops to the point the plant could produce 600 cars and 1,000 trucks [bogies] annually. Stephenson was now building full-size interurban, elevated and subway cars in addition to large streetcars.

Stephenson turned out a great many of the interurban eras big wooden cars, including some of the fastest. On the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin (known by old-timers as the Roarin Elgin), in 1903, a Stephenson car traversed 35 miles in 34 minutes 9 seconds, including speed restrictions and stops. {21}

Stephenson "Speed" Advertisement Read all about it! (If you can't read the small print, click pic for enlargement.)

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, Stephenson exhibited a 12-wheeled interurban car that it claimed could attain speeds as high as 120 mph. But there is no evidence it was ever put to the test, and though speed continued to be much sought after in interurban design, the design was not repeated.

In 1904, Stephenson was acquired by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia, although production continued under the Stephenson name. Stephenson’s 1905 catalog {32} said —

“We are licensed to build and furnish all of the patented types of cars, trucks and specialties of the J.G. Brill Company.  . . . The types of cars and trucks, as herein set forth, are developed to a completeness that comprehends every traffic condition etc.”

But the Stephenson plant was never equipped with machinery for the manufacture of steel cars and as they became more and more popular, production at Elizabeth slowed until finally the plant was closed in 1917. It was taken over by the Standard Aero Corporation of Plainfield for the construction of airplanes for the U.S. Government. {285}

Interurban by Stephenson
Typical Stephenson wood interurban, this one for the Rochester & Eastern Rapid Railway, 1903. It rode on Barney & Smith power trucks.

The Stephenson plant was sold in August 1919 and the corporation liquidated.

Continue to a Gallery of Stephenson Horsecars

Cast of Characters

John Stephenson (1809-1893) was born in County Armagh, Ireland, but his father was English and his mother Scottish. He was brought to the United States at the tender age of two. His parents had him trained for a mercantile position, but when he was 19, he persuaded them to apprentice him to Andrew Wade, a carriage maker, in whose shop he learned drafting and other arts involved in carriage building. {283}

He set up his own business at the age of 22, and was eminently successful. A nature of John Stephenson’s character and relationships is reflected in the following anecdote. In 1887, 300 employees in the body department asked for a 15% pay increase. With the business no doubt still suffering the lingering aftereffects of the 1884 market crash, “Mr. Stephenson . . . stated the condition of the company, which did not warrant an increase” and they went back to work. {281}

Stephenson was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and taught Sunday School for more than 40 years. He was leader of the choir for more than 30 years, and was very fond of music. He never held a political office except that of school trustee, a position to which he was elected for 23 consecutive terms. He was a Republican until the age of 79, when he switched to the Democratic party, advocating tariff reform. {283}

For More Information

“John Stephenson, Master Car Builder.” Railroad Magazine. September 1945.

Electric Railway Cars and Trucks 1905; John Stephenson Company. Felton, CA: Glenwood Publishers, 1972.

Reprint of the 1905 John Stephenson Co. Catalog. Includes Interurbans, Brill semi-convertible types, Stephenson semi-convertible types, Brill convertible types, Brill Narragansett open cars, standard open cars, standard closed cars, top seat cars, baggage cars, snow plows, sweepers and more. Many drawings and descriptions of the cars. Forward by George W. Hilton - University of California, Los Angeles. 88 - 8½" x 11" pages.

White, John H. Jr.  Horsecars, Cable Cars and Omnibuses. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974.

History of the John Stephenson Car Company, together with 107 builders photos from 1888 and before.

11 April 2006

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