Wells & French Company
Wells, French & Company
The 1874/75 Chicago City Directory has a classified listing for Wells, French & Company under “Bridge Builders.” The directory shows their offices at 146 Dearborn [North or South, we don’t know]. Principals are listed as Daniel L. Wells, Henry L. Norton, Edwin C. French and Frank E. Walker. (75)
Sources disagree on whether Wells, French & Company entered the car building field in 1871 or in 1874. The former seems more likely, as an 1873 publication about Chicago industry refers to the firm as a “bridge and car works.” It (45) says:
When Wells, French & Company decided to go into car building, they hired Charles F. Scoville to be superintendent of the plant. Scoville was then in the car department of the Illinois Central Railroad. He had experience as a millwright before —in 1852—being employed by the American Car Company of Seymour, Connecticut, for a short time, after which he went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad. Scoville would be superintendent of the Wells & French plant until almost the time of his death in 1890.
Wells, French & Company located its car plant on Wood Street south of Blue Island Avenue, in what was commonly referred to as the lumber district of Chicago. The south end of the plant was located on the south branch of the Chicago River where lumber could be received easily from great lakes lumber schooners.
The first cars produced were horse-drawn street cars, but with the advent of the electric traction era Wells, French & Company began building trolley cars.
The firm was incorporated in 1877 as the Wells & French Company. In 1882, Daniel L. Wells was its President, Henry L. Norton its Secretary and Treasurer and Frank E. Walker its “Engineer.” (74) We do not know if Mr. French was still active in the business. There is no listing for the company in the 1883 City Directory, and Mr. French apparently had not been a resident of the city, anyway.
In 1881, Wells & French completed an order for 40 cabooses (cabeese?) for the Santa Fe that were so luxurious by the standards of the day that they were described as “Palace Caboose Cars.” White (76) has a detailed description of these cars, together with plans for them.
In 1894, George J. Spaulding (1847- ) became Chief Engineer of the car works. He had a varied career, largely as engineer and/or outfitter of numerous boats on the Great Lakes. He was the plant’s chief engineer at least through 1899. (77)
After New York City’s Metropolitan Elevated Railroad proved the feasibility of electrification about 1895, Chicago’s South Side and Lake Street lines quickly moved to electrify. Wooden coaches were converted to motor cars by Wells & French.
After 1899, when Wells & French became part of the American Car & Foundry Company, it became known for its unusual products (see below). But the firm was building “Hi-Cube” boxcars in 1898 or earlier. A Nappanee, Indiana, newspaper from 1889 (54) reports:
Hi-cube box cars were not a new invention, one having been built as far back as the 1860s by the B&O railroad for hauling barrels. But they were still an oddity until the 1890s, and even then not built by many companies. (49)
Wells & French would also become known for the building of refrigerator cars, but the 17 August 1898 issue of the Ft. Madison, Iowa, Democrat notes that even then the Santa Fe was shipping 250 center-tank refrigerated boxcars to Wells & French to be rebuilt with ice bunkers at the ends. (55)
In 1899, the Wells & French Company was one of the 13 independent car builders consolidated into the American Car & Foundry Company.
The Chicago plant of AC&F (formerly Wells & French) specialized in technical products such as rail loaders, snow plows, graders and spreaders. It was the 1st car-building plant to receive the U.S. Army and Navy “E” award for its efforts in the 1st World War. After the war the Chicago plant built several large orders of railcars for the Italian State Railways. Refrigerator cars became its main product during the 1920s. During the 1930s and 1940s it produced various types of cars. It was closed in 1950.
The Mid-Continent Railway Museum has restored an 1897 Wells & French 36' box car that ran on the Soo Line. Information about it can be found at their website.
We have been informed there are three Wells & French cars built for the Virginia & Truckee still in existence. Two box cars, #1011 and #1013, built in 1874, are at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, while a wrecker, #50, built in 1875, is at Old Tucson. Box car #1013 has been restored. Unfortunately, the websites of neither organization contain information on these cars. Drawings can be found in The Silver Short Line by Ted Wurm and Harre Demoro and in The Bonanza Road by Mallory Hope Ferrell.
Cast of Characters —
Daniel L. Wells
was born in Vermont. He became interested in the construction of
railroads early in life, and as early as 1849 began work on the eastern
division of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad. From 1851 to 1852 he was
involved in the construction of the Rutland & Washington Railroad.
In later years, he became the head of Wells, Harrison, and Shute. This firm
built, among other things, more than 400 miles of railroads in Iowa and Dakota
for the Chicago & North Western Railroad, a line from Milwaukee to Madison for
the Chicago & North Western Railroad, and lines from Janesville to Beloit, WI,
and from Hastings to Stillwater, MN, for the Milwaukee Road.
Edwin Corydon French (1817-1876) was born in Cornwall, Stormont, ON. He is listed under the company name in the Chicago City Directory for 1874-1875 as residing in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. According to other information, he died at Peshtigo, Marinette Co., Wisconsin
Thanks to Diane we know of an entry in the journal of the superintendent of a glass factory operating in Meriden, Connecticut, from 1876-1889, that notes, under date of 4 April 1977: “Mr. Wilcox brought young Mr. French of the firm of French Wells & Co. [sic] -- He said our glass was very good.” Our surmise is that 60-year-old Edwin C. French had a son or grandson who was active in the business.
Charles F. Scoville (1821-1890) was born at Torringsford, Connecticut. He learned the trade of millwright (machine builder) and apparently practiced that trade for a number of years. In 1852, he went to work for the American Car Company at Seymour, Connecticut, but shortly thereafter moved to Chicago. He eventually went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad in their car department. In 1871, Wells & French hired him to set up their freight car plant and become its superintendent, a position he held for all but a few months before his death. 
For More Information —
More information may be available in the History of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, published in 1880. Page 805 of that work is supposed to have a biography of Edwin C. French.
02 October 2020