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

Murphy & Allison

Allison Manufacturing Company
W.C. Allison & Sons
W.C. Allison & Company
Allison Manufacturing Company, Inc.
Junction Car Works

Murphy & Allison had its beginnings at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1836 as the Allison Manufacturing Company.

William C. Allison (1817-1891) was raised in a middle-class Quaker household in Chester County, Pennsylvania. After an apprenticeship with a wheelwright, he opened his own wagon shop at the ripe old age of 19, possibly in conjunction with a relative who supplied the capital.

By 1840 Allison was building railroad cars, which, at the time, were little more than wagons that rode on rails. Since he had no blacksmithing facilities of his own, he used the services of John Murphy, a neighbor.

In 1851, the two proprietors formed the partnership of Murphy & Allison and for awhile, at least, were the only car builders in the state of Pennsylvania. Their factory eventually became known as the Junction Car Works.

One authority says Allison Built the first palace car ever produced. We suspect this is a reference to the sleeping car built for Edward C. Knight, the fabulously wealthy Philadelphia (of course!) sugar merchant who eventually enabled T.T. Woodruff & Company to become the Central Transportation Company. This car is described as “substantial and elegant, with twelve sections and a total capacity of 60 passengers. It had a double floor insulated with cork chips.” {17} It was used by the Prince of Wales between Washington and Philadelphia in 1860.

In an age when most buildings were of wood, and the crowded confines of a car manufacturing plant and foundry were just an accident waiting to happen, Murphy & Allison was in the forefront of fire-resistant construction. It was reported that even its building doors and roof framing were of iron. Nevertheless, its shops burned to the ground in May 1863. {42}

New shops were soon built that were even more fire-resistant, even considered fire-proof! (See description below.)

When Murphy died in 1866, Allison formed a new partnership with his sons and they continued business as W.C. Allison & Sons. Though they built both passenger cars and horse-drawn streetcars, freight cars were their mainstay.

A writer documenting American manufacturers of the time {395} gives us the following paragraphs that probably describe the Allison works about 1867. While describing the physical works, they incidentally tell us a good deal about both the company’s building methods and the social attitudes of the time.

“The works occupies an enclosure of about five acres of ground, situated between the West Chester and Junction railroads, and extending from Walnut to Spruce streets, in West Philadelphia. Nearly all of this extensive area is covered with buildings, generally of brick and stone, one and two stories in height. The greater portion of the building fronting on Walnut street is devoted to painting cars, the shop for the purpose being two hundred and fifty-nine feet long and eighty-one feet wide. Many of the workmen employed in this department are not merely good mechanical painters, but artists, whose productions, if on canvas, would be entitled to a place in a gallery of Fine Arts. On the second floor of this building are the varnishing rooms, and also a room eighty-one by forty feet used as an erecting shop for city passenger cars [streetcars].”

“Adjoining the building just mentioned is a fire-proof [!] structure, the lower floor of which is appropriated to offices and counting-rooms, including a fire-proof safe, which is a small room in itself, being sixteen feet long by nine feet wide, and on the upper floor are the upholstering department, pattern rooms, and rooms for the storage of valuable material. All the doors and girders in this building are of iron, and the structure is believed to be indestructible by fire. The inner office is arranged with a view of facilitating the clerk who acts as time-keeper. All the workmen make their entrance and exit through one gateway, and each man, as he enters, receives a small metallic number which he returns when he leaves the yard. By means of a spring the clerk in charge of the gateway can close it without leaving the office, and all workmen who come late are known and registered.”

“A large space of ground between the painting and erecting shop is appropriated to the transfer table, over which is an arched bridge connecting the second stories of the two buildings. Beyond is the erecting shop, two hundred and forty feet in length, eighty feet wide, and where may be seen Cars [sic] in their various stages of progress, among them some of the first class, with raised roofs and facilities for ventilation, such as approach as near perfection as the art has as yet attained. Adjoining the erecting shops on the south, are the wood working shops, one for hard, another for soft lumber; and also the repair shop, the machine shop and the engine room. The greater portion of the floor above these shops is appropriated to pattern and cabinet-making, for which it is equipped with all of the most approved tools and best machines. West of these buildings, and detached, are the blacksmith shops. In the bending room is a boiler in which wood is steamed preparatory to being bent to the various curvelinear and irregular forms desired. All of the rooms are heated in winter by means of steam pipes, of which there are about eight miles [emphasis of the reporter] distributed in coils through the different apartments. The condensed water of all these pipes is brought back and collected, to be used again to supply the boilers.”

“In this extensive establishment about three hundred men are employed, though doubtless nearly double that number, if needed, could operate without inconvenience, and it has a capacity for turning out every week three large passenger cars, ten street cars, and thirty freight cars, without interfering with the General Jobbing and Repairing [caps the reporter’s]”

According to one authority {245}, Allison quit building passenger cars altogether about 1868.

In that year, John George Brill—a German immigrant who had worked for Allison for more than 25 years and had risen to the position of foreman of the streetcar shop—resigned his position with Allison and started his own streetcar-building business which would ultimately become the J.G. Brill Company.

Following the shop fire of 1863, Allison had built new shops in west Philadelphia. But in 1872 these shops too went up in flames. {42} Nevertheless, in 1873 Allison was judged capable of producing 6,000 freight cars annually.

Somewhere along the line between 1866 and 1883, the Allison firm experienced another change in ownership or organization, as its advertisement in the 1879 Car Builders Dictionary represents it as W.C. Allison & Co.

W.C. Allison 1879 Advertisement

(1879 edition, Car-Builders Dictionary)

In 1881, Allison built a special car for the Virginia & Truckee to transport the locomotives of its narrow gauge Carson & Colorado subsidiary over broad gauge rails for maintenance. This thirty foot, 25 ton capacity flat car with narrow gauge rails affixed, became V&T engine transfer car No. 1. It was probably used to haul mining machinery as well. In 1938, it was sold to Paramount Pictures, and was probably used to move its narrow gauge prop engines from location to location.

In 1883, the firm was incorporated as the Allison Manufacturing Company.

Allison ad from 1887 (1887 edition, Poor’s Directory of Railway Officials)

No doubt through their earlier connection with Edward Knight, their Philadelphia connection, Allison was engaged to build the four sleeping cars for T.T. Woodruff & Company in 1888 that became a key element in the latters contract with the Pennsylvania Railroad to run a sleeper service much like that later offered by Pullman.

Allison quit the railway car field before the turn of the century.

11 April 2006

Home/Bldr. Index Bibliography Links Car-Bldr. Dictionary All-time Bldr. List C&S Rolling-stock