Early Vermont Car Builders
article by Jerry Fox originally appeared in the April and October
1994 issues of the Champlain Valley Chapter, NRHS “Shortline.” Used
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.
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
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
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.
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
J. P. Flanders &
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.
Company, St. Albans,
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
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
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
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