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

Early Vermont Car Builders

The following article by Jerry Fox originally appeared in the April and October 1994 issues of the Champlain Valley Chapter, NRHS “Shortline.” Used with permission.

Risky Business: Building Railroad Cars in Vermont

Vermont's more aggressive entrepreneurs found that the construction of the state's first railroads presented a variety of other opportunities. Many supplied ties or firewood. Some took a chance on a construction contract. A few tried their hand at building railroad cars.

At least five Vermont companies made, or professed to make, railroad cars. Three of these shops - the Brandon Car Shops, A. Latham & Company, and Robbins & Lawrence - entered the business between 1846 and 1850 during the initial burst of railroad construction. The other two - J. P. Flanders & Company and the National Car Company - started somewhat later.

The Brandon Car Shops, Brandon, Vermont

Among the first, and certainly the most dynamic, the shop at Brandon had many names, several owners and a murky history. It might have always been known informally as the Brandon Car Shops, but initially it was advertised as Conant, Briggs and Warren.

All four partners were Brandon men. The two Conant brothers, John A. and Chancy W. were merchants who, along with their father John Sr., also ran a bloom iron forge and a paint factory. Ebenezer N. Briggs was an attorney who, on several occasions, represented Brandon in the state legislature. He introduced the bill for the Connecticut & Champlain Railroad, corporate predecessor of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad. David Warren was a prominent Brandon housewright.

John A. Conant along with his other business activities was a major share holder and director of the Rutland & Burlington. The influence of John A. Conant and Briggs, combined with the reputation of Warren, won the firm a contract to build the railroad's first passenger and freight cars. According to the June 1850 census, during the previous twelve months Conant, Briggs & Warren had employed 30 men and built rolling stock valued at $45,000.

This shop's history over the next several years is very poorly documented. Just when he took charge is unknown, but by the end of 1851 Myron J. Gilbert was managing the plant, running it for at least three and possibly as long as eight years. Gilbert himself is also something of an enigma. We don't know where he came from or where he went to. Nor do we know exactly when he arrived or when he left. Or for that matter, why? We do know that his brother was Uri Gilbert, the energy behind the Eaton & Gilbert Car Works in Troy, New York. Yet, there is no evidence that Myron was ever connected with the Troy car shop.

In any case, by 1858 the shop was operating as the Brandon Car Company under the management of William M. Field, owner of the Brandon Inn. Field was probably in partnership with David Warren since advertisements published between 1860 and 1863 also listed the firm as Field & Warren. In 1862 the shop's major customer, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, decided to build their own rolling stock. After completing a new building in Rutland, the railroad bought out Field & Warren in either 1864 or 1865 and moved the equipment.

Referring to the Rutland & Burlington's early cars, Jim Shaughnessy, in his book The Rutland Road, tartly comments that "operating superintendent, E. A. Chapin, was sentenced to creeping defeat in his Herculean efforts to keep the road's rolling stock, built by the amateurs at Brandon, from falling apart, ..." Undoubtedly there were problems with the equipment delivered under the initial orders. Perhaps it was these technical difficulties that brought the elusive Myron Gilbert to Brandon. Still, even with the difficulties, the 15 year longevity of this relationship indicates that David Warren did eventually learn to produce a sound car.

Robbins & Lawrence, Windsor, Vermont

Things did not work out quite as well for Robbins & Lawrence, a small arms manufacturer in Windsor. In 1847 their reputation for productivity prompted S. F. Belknap, a Windsor resident and the contractor for the Vermont Central Railroad, to approach them with a proposition. If they would set up a car shop, he would provide $20,000 in capital and the orders. A year later the shop opened and began work on an order of freight cars for the Vermont Central. The partnership was terminated in the summer of 1849 by Belknap's death.

What happened at this point is not clear. Somehow the Vermont Central got out of the contract and refused the cars. To recover their investment Robbins & Lawrence were forced to sell the rolling stock to the Rutland & Burlington, probably at a discount and with payment in common stock.

Robbins & Lawrence has received considerable attention from historians interested in small arms manufacture. Although they state that the car shop was closed with the refusal of this first delivery, the enumerator for the 1850 industrial census was able to report construction of 120 cars worth $54,000. A report issued by the company shows that in 1854 the car department's inventory was valued at $23,043.65 The building and associated equipment were insured for $19,000. Also, a Robbins & Lawrence advertisement dated 1856 shows that the car shop was still open. In his later years Richard S. Lawrence wrote his son a letter saying that the company sold cars to the Boston, Concord, & Montreal ($14,000), the Sullivan ($5,000) and the Vermont Central ($75,000). He stated that stock shares were accepted in payment for all of these orders. As each railroad defaulted and was reorganized out of bankruptcy, the common stock shares lost their value. The sale of railroad cars had resulted in a cumulative loss of $134,000. Very big money prior to the Civil War.

Some details of the Vermont Central Railroad's purchases are known. A list included in the Vermont Central's 1854 annual report shows the railroad owned 106 Windsor built cars. The aggregate value of the Robbins & Lawrence cars is $45,600, slightly less than the figure for Vermont Central cars shown in the paragraph above. The 1854 number may be a depreciated value or additional cars may have been purchased after the report was issued.

Robbins & Lawrence was forced into bankruptcy in 1856. The primary cause was the end of the Crimean War and the subsequent termination of a large British contract for Enfield Rifles. However, any losses resulting from the railroad car contracts would certainly have depleted the company's financial resources, thereby increasing their vulnerability.

A. Latham & Company, Hartford, Vermont

The third early shop, A. Latham & Co., fared little better. Arthur Latham, a Lyme, New Hampshire storekeeper, foresaw the potential of locating a machine shop and foundry at a busy rail junction. In April 1848, with the Northern (New Hampshire), the Central Vermont, and the Connecticut & Passumpsic Rivers railroads all under construction and converging on White River Junction, Vermont, Latham opened his shop with 18 employees.

Contemporary newspaper accounts say that the Latham Works supplied cars to several railroads, unfortunately names are not listed. Since Latham was a director of the Connecticut & Passumpsic, it is possible they had some of his cars. He was also a director of the Rutland & Washington which definitely had Latham built cars. The cars were financed with notes of credit. As a director of the line, accepting the notes must have seemed a very reasonable risk to Latham.

Unfortunately for him the stock market burped. On July 2, 1854 Robert Schuyler, a prominent New York stock broker, railroad investor, and the president of three railroads, secretly left New York City for Europe. Soon it was public knowledge that he had embezzled over 2.25 million dollars from the various railroads under his management. Although not directly involved in the ensuing railroad stock panic, the Rutland & Washington found itself short of cash and unable to raise the funds necessary to cover their notes to Latham. Powerless to collect on a $100,000 order for new cars and locomotive repairs, Latham was also forced into bankruptcy. As a holder of legal notes, rather than common stock, Latham was able to sue the railroad and recover part of his investment. However, he never reopened his factory.

[Addendum by webmaster 8 August 2005: John H. White Jr., American Locomotive Builders in the Steam Era, (Self-published, 1982), p. 55, says “John Humphrey reopened the shop but only for the general machinery trade. J.P. Laird, later Master Mechanic of the PRR was superintendent.”]

J. P. Flanders & Company, Burlington, Vermont

John P. Flanders was a machinist working in Burlington as early as 1855. In 1859 he set up his own shop, renting space in an industrial complex known as the Pioneer Mechanics Shops which was located on Lake Street. His primary products were water wheels and miscellaneous machine parts.

Advertisements published in W. W. Atwater's Vermont Directory and Commercial Almanac during 1866 and 1867 indicate at least a desire to expand into railroad car construction. Whether he actually built any cars is an open question. Flanders reason for leaving the business is unknown, perhaps he overextended himself with this expansion. In any case he sold out late in 1867. He moved down to Vergennes, but what he did there is still undetermined.

National Car Company, St. Albans, Vermont

The last nineteenth century car company was one of J. Gregory Smith's paper corporations designed to pad his own pockets and those of his friends. The National Dispatch Line was organized in 1868 as a fast freight service between Boston and Chicago. The route left Boston over the Boston & Lowell for Lowell, Massachusetts. From there the Nashua & Lowell and the Concord Railroad continued as far north as Concord, New Hampshire. There the Northern (New Hampshire) Railroad provided the link to the Vermont Central at White River Junction. The Vermont Central then proceeded over its own tracks and those of the Vermont & Canada to Montreal where the Grand Trunk took over. The Grand truck interchanged near Detroit with the Michigan Central which in turn completed the run to Chicago.

This route, while very direct, had a major imperfection. The Grand Trunk was still broad gauge while the other roads were all standard gauge. Therefore, it was necessary to break bulk at Montreal and then again where the Grand Trunk interchanged with the Michigan Central. To overcome this handicap Smith also formed the National Car Company which provided the line with dual gauge cars.

Incorporated as a subsidiary of the St. Albans Foundry, National Car purchased the patents for C. D. Tisdale's dual gauge truck. The wheels of these trucks were locked in place by a large clip. With the clips removed, the gauge of the wheels could be converted by drawing the train slowly through a gauntlet track of slowly changing width. Once the clips were reinstalled the train was ready to roll again.

The Grand Trunk initially purchased a sample of 200 cars. When these proved successful, it bought another 300. Each car cost the Grand Trunk $1070, somewhat more than the usual box car price, which at the time was between $500 and $600. Since the cars were built in the Central Vermont Railroad's St. Albans shops, the Smiths turned a tidy profit.

While Tisdale's truck was functional when new, it was less than ideal. With repeated gauge changes the axles, wheel hubs, and locking clips all began to wear. Looseness between these critical parts resulted in wobbly wheels, which in turn resulted in increased friction on curves and greater potential for derailments. As a consequence the Grand Trunk began to standard gauge its line in 1872, finishing the job in 1874. With the loss of its original purpose the company evolved into a refrigerator car company. By 1884 it operated 4000 Tiffany built refrigerator cars between Chicago and Boston. Nothing else is known about the company except that it never operated a car shop of its own and that it was dissolved in 1914.

Building railroad cars was a risky business in Vermont. Three of the companies that attempted it - Robbins & Lawrence, A. Latham, and J. P. Flanders - all meet with financial disaster, at least partially as a result of the venture. The fragmentary history of the Brandon shop implies that while longer lived, it was at best a qualified success. Smith's National Car Company was the only establishment that actually made money. And it didn't even repair its own cars! Not one National Car Company employee ever cut a stick or drove a nail.

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Risky Business, Part 2: More About Building Railroad Cars in Vermont

When the last article on Vermont railroad car builders was completed, I knew there was more to learn about the individual companies. I did not anticipate any new ones. Foolish fellow, me! The envelope with the article had barely left my fingertips before I stumbled over several more car companies. Talk about chagrin!

My problems began with Burgett's 1876 atlas of Vermont which includes an engraving of a fairly substantial looking enterprise called the Arlington Car Manufacturing Company. The Arlington Car Manufacturing Company?? Well, as it turns out, this firm was organized in 1872 by Orlando and Albert Dow Canfield, who also owned a prosperous sash and blind mill in Arlington. Nothing is known about the orders that the car company received, however, the choice of rolling stock shown in the Burgett engraving suggests that they made equipment for the Maine Central, the New York Central, and possibly the Central Vermont's Harlem Extension Division which served the town.

It is known that in hopes of future orders the Canfields invested heavily in the construction of four deluxe passenger cars, one of which was narrow gauge, and sent them to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The cars failed to beguile the visiting railroad magnates and the company was forced into bankruptcy. Some sources say the company failed shortly after the Exhibition opened, although others give an 1880 date. In either case, George W. Miltimore, who's patented axle was used in the trucks under the Centennial Exhibition cars, took over the car works in either 1880 or 1881. Apparently he found cars a poor business since advertisements published after 1884 address only car wheels.

Under the two successive managements this facility may have produced cars for as long as thirteen years. Yet, its obscurity suggests the total number of orders was small and the company not particularly successful.

While trying to verify the existence of the Arlington car works, I discovered an even less successful firm, J. D. Fullington of Burlington. The 1877 issue of W. W. Atwater's Vermont Directory and Commercial Almanac listed Fullington as a car builder operating out of Linsley's Mill, a commercial sawmill located at the northern extremity of Burlington's waterfront.

Despite the announcement in Atwater's, the Burlington City Directory for the same year said that Fullington was an employee of the Burlington & Lamoille Railroad. The Atwater advertisement was not repeated and the 1878-1879 issue of the City Directory listed Fullington as a self-employed carpenter.

It is interesting to note that Linsley's Mill was jointly owned by Daniel Linsley and his brother George. Daniel was the Burlington & Lamoille's general manager. Since the railroad was built in 1877 it is likely that Fullington was hired by the line to modify a few cars and even perhaps build some of the cars used in the construction train. While it is possible that Fullington made a few cars for some railroad, the transient nature of the advertisement suggests that it was placed in hopes of attracting additional business which never materialized.

The other two companies that I found were the Rutland Car Company and the New England Car Co., Inc. Both companies were organized by men associated with the Burlington and Rutland, the Rutland and Washington, and other railroads serving the southwest corner of the state. In addition, both were envisioned as fast freight lines like the National Car Company discussed in the initial section of this article. The extent to which these companies were successful in their endeavors is a question that as yet remains to be answered. Although both corporate charters include provisions for the manufacture of cars, it is doubtful that either company ever fabricated one.

I think that this completes the list of the companies that might have built railroad cars in the Vermont. If you know of any others, please get in touch with me.

09 April 2006

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