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

Wells & French Company

Wells, French & Company

Wells & French was founded in 1869 (or 1866) at Chicago, Illinois, as Wells, French & Company. It is not clear just what purposes were intended at the time, but one of the founding partners—Daniel L. Wells—was by then a well-known builder of western railroads. It is most likely that the initial purpose of the firm was to design and build bridges. An article in The Journal newspaper from Platte County, Nebraska, dated 27 July 1870 reports:

"The pioneer bridge at Columbus was begun August, 15 ... plans are being completed for the Fremont structure ... In all of these Wells, & French Co., of Chicago have the contract for the construction and L.M. Beebe & Bros., of Columbus the sub-contract." (53) (Note the comma in the "Wells, & French" name.)

Several Nebraska histories mention bridges built in 1870/71 by Wells, French & Company of Chicago. {56}

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:

“The bridge and car works of Wells, French & Co. C.F. Scoville, Superintendent were established in 1866; employs 300 hands; monthly payroll, $18,000 to $20,000; annual production, 1,200 freight cars, and 10,000 feet of bridging; value $1,250,000. The specialty of the Company is the manufacture of railroad cars and the building of bridges. The works are located near the corner of Blue Island avenue and West Twenty-second street. Offices, Hawley Block, corner Dearborn and Madison streets.”

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:

“The Coppes Bros. are having another car made at the Wells & French car works in Chicago, for the purpose of the transportation of packing boxes. The car, which will soon be here, is probably the largest ever built for freight purposes. Its length is 58 feet and stands 14 feet high. The largest car ever built at the above work, we understand, was for shipping barrels and was 50 feet long. The Coppes Bros. are seeking capacity in room by having this car constructed, as the packing boxes are very light in weight. The new car will be lettered, representing their business, as two others, one each bear the advertisement of Excelsior and Muzzy starch company's 'ads' at Elkhart.”

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 (1821-1884) 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 1856, Wells settled in Milwaukee, WI, and became involved with construction of a portion of the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad between Minnesota Junction and La Crosse. He also built the Menominee branch of the Chicago & North Western, the Michigan & West Shore Railroad from New Brooklyn to Pentwater, Michigan, the Leavenworth & Galveston Railroad, and portions of other lines.

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.

In his varied enterprises Wells was associated with a number of firms in Chicago and in Milwaukee, including Chapin & Wells; Wells & French; Wells & Chamberlain; Wells, Harrison & Shute; and Wells, Harrison & Greene.

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. [326]

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.

Online —

Description of the Daniel L. Wells papers in the archives of the Golda Mier Library at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

02 October 2020

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