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

Magor Car Corporation

Wonham-Magor Engineering Works
Magor Car Company

The Magor Car Corporation had its beginnings in 1899 in the partnership of Basil Magor and Fred Wonham. We don’t know just what the intent of that partnership was, though one might speculate that it was a civil engineering consultancy, since Basil—born and raised in Montreal—had graduated just five years before from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, NY, with a degree in civil engineering.{83} We don’t know yet what Wonham’s background was. Kaminski {86} says the purpose of the partnership was “the sale of light industrial rolling stock equipment,” and this is supported by Wonham’s listing in the 1900 U.S. Census, which shows his profession as “Agent.” {90} [We have yet to find a listing for Magor; perhaps he was in Canada at the time.]

In 1902, the partnership led to a manufacturing operation at Clifton, New Jersey, called the Wonham-Magor Engineering Works. Being close to the port of New York, the works specialized in railcars for export. (Or conversely, the export business of the partnership may have led to the choice of location for, as Kaminski {86} notes “the plant was one of the closest to port of any car builder in the United States and eliminated practically all inland freight expense and transit delays.”

Wonham-Magor built all kinds of “industrial” cars:  cane cars, dump cars, flat cars, and logging cars. The company was also an export agent for locomotives built by the H. K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh, one of several American manufacturers specializing in export equipment ranging from light, functional cars to portable track. {88}

At some time between 1906 and 1910, the works experienced a devastating fire, and Basil called on his younger brother Robert to come down from Montreal and take charge of the works. Robert Magor had been working for the Dominion Car & Foundry Company, which either was then or would become a part of the Canadian Car & Foundry Company (in 1909). Robert supervised the construction of new buildings and got the plant in operation again.

It appears that about 1910 Magor and Wonham parted ways, as the works was renamed the Magor Car Company.

With Robert on hand to manage the company, Basil’s interests turned northward. In his hometown of Montreal, a group of Canadian capitalists decided that Canadian railways presented a market that should not be left to U.S. car builders, and in 1912 they enlisted Basil to help establish the National Steel Car Company. (With more than a little U.S. capital as well!) Basil became General Manager of the new company, and one of his first actions was to established the joint sales operation with Magor Car Company that would be maintained until Magor’s sale to the Fruehoff Corporation in 1964. Offices would be maintained in New York City and in many major cities overseas.

In 1914, with war brewing in Europe, Magor turned to the domestic market and began building cars for American railroads, though the export market would be its mainstay for years to come. It also entered into the contract car repair market, another market in which it would thrive.

In 1917, as the United States entered the war in Europe, the company was incorporated as the Magor Car Corporation; among its major stockholders was J.P. Morgan. Robert Magor was its President.

In 1918, Magor was among the many firms that built cars for the United States Railroad Administration as part of its effort to construct 100,000 standard freight cars. (Which is interesting, considering that his obituary says Robert Magor was an advisor to the USRA and “assisted in handling the contracts.”)

During both World Wars Magor produced thousands of cars for military needs as well as for export. It was a principal builder of cars for Europe under the Marshall Plan.

50-ton air-dump car built by Magor, 1956.

In 1959, Magor built its first aluminum-bodied covered hopper cars, which were also the first to be placed in U.S. revenue service, and went on to build more than 5000 aluminum cars.

Magor was sold in 1964 to the Fruehauf Corporation. One authority estimates that Magor was then capable of producing more than 5,000 units annually. But sales were steadily declining, and the company went out of business in 1973.

Between 1899 and 1973, Magor produced some 95,000 cars. Most were industrial style cars for mine, sugar mill, track maintenance, etc., and perhaps the greatest number went to export customers. But Magor built for the domestic market as well, being perhaps best known for its cabooses and its air dump cars. During its last decades it specialized in aluminum bodied cars, notably covered hoppers such as the well-known Big Johns of the Southern Railway.

Cast of Characters

H. Basil Magor (1871-1933) was born in Montreal, QC, and came to the United States in about 1893. {87} He graduated the next year from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, NY, with a degree in civil engineering. {83} In 1898/99, he was one of the engineers in China with General William Barclay Parsons locating the railroad from Hankow to Canton. {84}

According to his Obituary, in 1902 Basil founded and became the first President of the Magor Car Corporation, in Passaic, NJ, of which he was a Director at his death in 1933. {83} This rather foreshortens the story, as it was Wonham-Magor Engineering Works that was founded, which became Magor Car Corporation.

From 1904 to 1907 Basil was a partner in the New York (engineering) consulting firm of Wonham & Magor. (An internet article on Porter locomotives says Wonham & Magor was involved with exporting Porter locomotives and that it later became Wonham Inc. {88})

On 2 May 1910, Basil and family were renting an apartment in Morristown, New Jersey. On the 1910 U.S. Census his profession is shown as Mechanical Engineer. {87}

At some time between 1907 and 1912 Basil was involved in some way with the Dominion Car & Foundry Company of Montreal (which later became a part of the Canadian Car & Foundry Company): perhaps through his brother Robert’s employment there.

In 1912, Basil was involved in the establishment of the Imperial Car Company at Montreal (actually Hamilton), ON, and became one of its original Directors, as well as its General Manager. The name of this company was almost immediately changed to the National Steel Car Company.

During the 1st World War Basil was a district manager at Port Jefferson, L.I. [Long Island?] for the Emergency Fleet Corporation. During the period of roughly 1920 to 1927 he lived in London representing the foreign interests of the Magor Corporation. {83}

Frederick S. Wonham (1871-1952), born in Canada, came to the United States about 1888. Unlike Basil, he seems to have spent his working life around New York City. The 1900 and the 1920 U.S. Census show him living in New York City, while the 1910 census shows him living in Westchester. In 1900, his profession is listed as “Agent,” in 1910 as “Wholesale merchant,” and in 1920 as “Exporter.” His obituary indicates from 1925 until his death at age 81 he was President of Wonham, Inc., exporters and importers.

Robert James Magor (1882-1942) was a younger brother of Basil Magor. Also born in Montreal, QC, he apparently received no more than a high school education. When his father died in 1899, he took over the management of his father’s business, John Magor & Son, which handled grain, flour and general merchandise. {89}

About 1903, Robert became a mechanic, and in 1906 he joined the Canadian Car & Foundry Company. [So says his obituary, but since that company was not incorporated until November 1909, one suspects he went to work for Dominion Car & Foundry, with which his brother Basil had some connection, and which was one of the firms combined under the name Canadian Car & Foundry in 1909.] Robert held several different jobs with that company, working his way up to assistant to the Superintendent. {89}

Robert came to the United States at the request of Basil, to “take charge of the Wonham, Magor Engineering Works in Passaic, N.J.” According to his obituary, “Fire had just destroyed the plant, but Mr. Magor supervised the construction of the new buildings and eventually took over his brother’s interests and became President." {89}

During the 1st World War, Robert was an advisor to William G. McAdoo, head of the United States Railway Administration (USRA), and assisted in the handling of the largest order for railway cars ever placed, to the tune of $3 million. {89}

In December 1919, Robert raised money in the United States to purchase the bankrupt National Steel Car Company of Montreal, which his older brother Basil had founded seven years before. The company was then reorganized as the National Steel Car Corporation, Limited, with Robert as its President. Robert subsequently “bought out the United States interests and had the ownership transferred to Canada, with the stock listings on the Canadian Exchanges.” {89}

For More Information

Kaminski, Edward S. The Magor Car Corporation. Berkeley, CA: Signature Press, 2000.

This is largely a picture book, albeit with lengthy captions. It has some 235 photos in its 200 - 8½" x 11" pages. But the corporate history consumes only a dozen of them.

Parsons, William Barclay. An American Engineer in China. New York, NY: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1900.

If you want to know more about the work done by Parsons’ engineers in surveying the railroad from Hankow to Canton, don’t waste time with this book. There is absolutely no description of work done by his party, and the only mention of those who went with him is a listing of names in the Preface.

The book should more likely be called “China at the Turn of the Century as Viewed by an American Engineer.” It is about China, and the Chinese, and except for talking about its engineering marvels—mainly bridges and pagodas—and the potential for foreign-built railways, limits itself to those subjects. Anthropologists and sociologists will find it interesting, and prognosticators will enjoy a hind-site review of his chapter on “China In the Twentieth Century.”

11 April 2006

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