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

Crossen Car Manufacturing Company

Information in this article was drawn largely from Andrew Merrilees, The Railway Rolling Stock Industry in Canada. An unpublished manuscript written in 1963, which can be found as part of the Merrilees collection at the National Archives of Canada and at the Archives of Ontario.

The Crossen Car Manufacturing Company had its beginnings at Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, when in 1866 or '67 James Crossen Jr. (1826-1890), owner of a small foundry, was asked by the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway Company to build 12 four-wheeled ore cars. The Cobourg & Peterborough had begun in 1852, largely financed by the citizens of Cobourg. The foundry was able to produce the castings and there was plenty of timber locally available.

Crossen, born in Comer, County Down, Ireland, had come to America with his parents and nine siblings in 1842. The family settled near Batavia, New York, but for some reason as yet unknown, James Jr. moved on to Cobourg, Ontario. (Geography lesson: Batavia is in north central New York state, about 27 miles south of the south shore of Lake Ontario, while Cobourg is on the north shore of Lake Ontario, almost directly to the north.) Crossen worked at various jobs in the iron trade and eventually became the owner of the small foundry, variously known as the Ontario Foundry or the old “Helm” foundry.

Crossen executed the order well, and soon had more. In 1873 he organized the car-building operation as the Crossen Car Company, constructing all kinds of cars. In 1877, Crossen built its first passenger car, which was well received, and soon had repeat orders. Among the first railroads ordering Crossen passenger cars were the Grand Trunk and Intercolonial Railways, both of which had previously bought large numbers of freight cars.

In 1885, Crossen began building sleeping cars. The first were the Chaudiere and the Vancouver. The next year Crossen began building dining cars. The first were the Buckingham, the Claremont, and the St. James. All were built for the Canadian Pacific. While Crossen continued building cars of this type, it was never a real competitor with the builders such as Pullman, Barney & Smith and Harlan & Hollingsworth, which were the largest suppliers of such cars to the Canadian railways.

The period 1885 to about 1893 were probably Crossen’s best years. At its peak, it employed more than 500 “artisans” and was reportedly capable of producing 150 freight cars and seven passenger cars a month. 1893, of course brought a crash of the U.S. stock market that precipitated the slowing economy of North America into a depression that would dry up railway-building capital for years to come.

[The company’s listing in the 1887 edition of Poor’s Directory of Railroad Officials refers to the company as the James Crossen Car Works.]

James Crossen died in late 1890, and the firm was incorporated as the Crossen Car Manufacturing Co. of Cobourg, Ltd., with James Crossen’s eldest son, William James (1857-1927), as President and General Manager, and another son, Frederick John (1870-1896) as Secretary. William had been active in the firm with his father since the mid-80s and was well qualified to continue the firm. Frederick was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time of his father's death, preparing for a career in the family business.

Railroad historian Andrew Merrilees quotes the Toronto Globe at the time of James Crossen’s funeral as saying,

“Nearly every railroad in Canada, large and small, has drawn some of its rolling stock from Cobourg, from the coal hoppers used at Lethbridge, N.W.T. and Springhill, Nova Scotia, to the transcontinental trains running from Atlantic to Pacific.

“The finest products of these works may be seen in the electrically-lighted train on the Canada Atlantic, running from Ottawa to Boston; the C.P.R. colonist cars; the first class and sleepers of the Intercolonial and C.P.R.; the lately-finished vestibule trains of the C.P.R. and the modal officials’ or private cars of the Governor General and Minister of Railways at Ottawa.”

By the turn of the century, nearly every Canadian railroad had some Crossen cars. One of its best customers was the Intercolonial Railway, as it was owned by the Dominion (of Canada) Government and would give preference to Canadian car builders. In 1906, Crossen built the first four parlor cars ever owned in Canada for the Intercolonial.

Authorities differ as to the ending of the Crossen works.

Either —

Crossen was sold to the Canadian Car & Foundry Company in 1910, but continued operation as the Crossen Car Company Ltd. It relinquished its Dominion business charter in 1926.

Or —

 It went into voluntary liquidation about 1915. The end had come for wooden car construction and the cost of refitting the plant to build steel cars was economically unfeasible. Added to that, the Canadian Pacific, one of Crossen's most faithful customers, had begun building its own cars, thus diminishing the market substantially.

Authorities are agreed on the following —

Crossen ceased the manufacture of wooden cars in 1915 with the delivery of six steel-framed, wooden sheathed colonist cars to the Canadian Northern Railway.

According to railroad historian Andrew Merriliees, Crossen never did much advertising, and never took “builders photos” of its products. He also stated that all Crossen business records were destroyed about 1928, following the death of William Crossen.

However, recent correspondence indicates that in 1986 or 1987, when the Art Gallery of  Northumberland organized an historical exhibition called "Some Prominent Citizens," it obtained a number of builders photos from the Crossen family, as well as several early company records, including building layouts of the factory.

For More Information

Rafuse, Ted. Wooden Cars on Steel Rails; A History of the Crossen Car Companies, Cobourg, Ontario. Port Hope, ON: Steampower Publishing, 2004.

This is a brand-new book, produced from extensive research. Its 166 pages include 125 b/w photos, 51 equipment diagrams, car rosters and full references with an index.

09 April 2006

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