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

Laconia Car Company

Ranlet Manufacturing Company

Laconia Car Co. manufactured railway cars in Laconia, NH, from 1848 to 1928. Gilford native Charles Ranlet, an expert clockmaker from Exeter, NH, started the company in 1848, the same year that the railroad reached Meredith Bridge, as Laconia was earlier known, it being then a part of the town of Meredith. Initially, he turned out up to three freight cars a week, these being about 24 feet long and seven feet high, constructed of oak, pine and spruce and having four wheels. Ranlet had located here because of the abundance of softwoods and hardwoods, plentiful labor and, with the opening of the railroad, shipping to and from Boston and beyond.

In 1849, Ranlet's brother Joseph, who had been employed for 20 years as foreman of the machine shop of the Newmarket Manufacturing Co., joined the Laconia firm. Charles died in October 1861 and Joseph formed a partnership with John C. Moulton, a local entrepreneur and industrialist. Business soared during the Civil War, due to demand for rolling stock for the Union's military railroads.

By 1869 Ranlet employed 100 men and produced 300 freight and 12 passenger cars a year. By 1893 they were producing 125 passenger cars per year. {245}

Another Laconia industrialist, Perley Putnam, joined the company in January 1865. It then expanded into passenger cars on a large scale in 1870. Joseph Ranlet retired in April 1878. Early in 1894, the company began manufacturing rolling stock for electric street railways.

In 1897, Frank Jones of Portsmouth, beer brewer and industrial entrepreneur, purchased the company, modernized and expanded the plant. Jones died in 1902, but the trustees of his estate continued the management of the firm until 1912, when it was sold to three banking houses of Boston and New York City, which continued to operate it until the company went into liquidation in 1930-1931. Last streetcar production was in 1928, although the firm attempted briefly to build and market two models of boats.

The entire plant burned down in 1881 and suffered frequent fires through the 1890s, leading to reconstruction in brick.

In 1899 the plant occupied 7 acres in the heart of the city, but by 1912 had 54 buildings and occupied about 14 acres. In 1913 it acquired another 12 acres nearby and erected more buildings, including a large traveling crane. The extant eight or so substantial structures (including the four-story foundry and machine shop) date from the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1919, an additional large space was occupied about a half-mile away for a repair facility used for refurbishing 3,975 freight cars after World War I. {O.R. Cummings, Warren Huse}

Over the 80 years of its existence, the Laconia Car Co. produced thousands of railroad cars, both freight and passenger, and hundreds of trolley and subway cars, the vast majority of which went to rail and trolley lines on the East Coast, although there were a few orders to Nevada, Indiana and other states at some distance from Laconia. The company built at least two coaches for the Mount Washington Cog Railway. The company did not, however, build any cable cars for San Francisco or anywhere else.

Initially, the bodies of the cars were of wood, but eventually the Car Shops converted to manufacturing steel bodies. The company performed all the various processes necessary to building a coach, from casting of iron and brass, carpentry and cabinetwork, machining, electrical wiring, lights, plumbing, manufacture of seats, upholstery, decoration, glass, painting, varnishing, etc. A bronze "Laconia Car Co." plaque was installed in each of its products.

Laconia cars are still in service on certain tourist railways, such as the one in Conway, N.H. There are a number of Laconia-built trolleys in operation at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, as well as at other railway museums.

Text courtesy of Warren D. Huse, local history writer for The Laconia Daily Sun and treasurer of the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, based on an unpublished "History of the Laconia Car Co." by O. R. Cummings and material from the microfilm files of The Laconia Democrat (weekly newspaper) and Laconia Evening Citizen (daily newspaper).

02 Nov 2017

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