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

Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company

Ohio Falls Car & Locomotive Company

Thinking that the Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company was located at a place called "Ohio Falls" can lead one on a merry chase. The United States Geological Survey maintains a database known as the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) that is considered the best general source for any geographic name found by the USGS in the course of years of mapping the country. GNIS knows of no populated place named "Ohio Falls." Further, we have been able to find no atlas, contemporary or otherwise, that contains the name "Ohio Falls." The only hints we have found are a map titled "Plan of the City of New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana" dated 1876, that shows the "Town of Ohio Falls" just east of New Albany on the Ohio River, and a mention of a speculator named Lawson Very who “attempted unsuccessfully” to establish a town of that name in the area of Clarksville, just northwest of Jeffersonville. {504}

Ohio Falls Car Works, 1872
Ohio Falls Car Works at Jeffersonville, Indiana, about 1872. Note transfer table between erecting shops at rear of 20 acre plant. Buildings are connected by service railway with 22 turntables facilitating movement of cars.

The Ohio Falls Car & Locomotive Company was founded at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1 June 1864. Jeffersonville is immediately across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, near what is known as the “Falls of the Ohio,” and it is apparently from this geographic that the company took its name. It was likely started because during this last full year of the Civil War inflation was rampant and the price of a boxcar that before the war had sold for $450 - 500 was up to $1,000 - 1,200. (Multiply those prices by 15 to recognize today's value.) Further, Jeffersonville was the location of an important Quartermaster supply depot and an important gateway to the South.

The company appears to have gone through bankruptcy early on, but we can't pin this down. Since the company was begun during the Civil War, in an inflationary economy, when car prices tripled and quadrupled, it is possible the abrupt return to “normal” in 1865 may have seemed like a depression to the budding company.

In 1866, 35 year old Joseph White Sprague (1831-1900) was asked by the stockholders to take over management of the bankrupt company. He had been Engineer on the enlargement of the Erie canal from 1854 to 1858, Second Assistant Engineer on the New York canals from 1858 to 1862, and then Civil Engineer on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad.

Sprague believed in standardization at a time when railroads were going in 76 different directions with their own ideas of how cars should be built. His firm was soon offering standard box cars, flat cars and hopper cars. According to White,(64) Ohio Falls’ advertisement in the 1868 Ashcroft Railway Directory stated they had cars on hand ready for immediate delivery. They maintained 10 of each type of car ready for lettering and delivery in 24 hours. They maintained another 120 cars framed up, and could deliver these completed at a rate of from 12 to 20 per week. They had a stock of streetcars ready for lettering, and passenger car bodies ready for trucks and interior trimmings of the buyers choice. They guaranteed high quality and fast delivery.

The records that would tell how successful this program was apparently no longer exist, as White—backed by the resources of the Smithsonian Institution—was unable to find them. But this was a revolutionary concept, and revolutionary concepts didn’t seem to go over very well in the car building industry. Every railway seemed to have its own idea of car design, and ready-made cars would necessarily be of Ohio Falls’ design. “Standardization,” as such, was 50 years off.

The companys shops burned to the ground in 1872, and Sprague built a new series of shops. But before the company could get going again, the financial panic of 1873 severely reduced the railroads buying of new cars. The shops were closed for more than two years, and the firm apparently went through a second bankruptcy.

In 1876 the company was reorganized as the Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company. It built most types of railroad cars, including electric street cars, and passenger cars for the up-and-coming narrow gauge railroads.

Among the first narrow gauge cars built by Ohio Falls were excursion cars for a Kentucky railroad. These tiny cars weighed less than seven tons and seated 64, but would carry as many as 125.

We don't know whether there was another reorganization between 1876 and 1887, but the name Ohio Falls Car Co.  is listed under “Car Builders” in 1877 edition, Poor’s Directory of Railway Officials.

When Joseph Sprague retired in 1888, Ohio Falls was one of the largest and most profitable of the car builders.  By 1892 it employed more than 2,300, and its sales soon reached $3 million worth of cars annually. In 1898 its net earnings reached $220,000 and holders of preferred stock received a 14 percent dividend.

Whether it was ever successful in selling ready-made cars or not, Ohio Falls continued its commitment to the idea. In 1896 it surveyed the industry, asking what a 30-ton boxcar measured or “ought” to measure. It published its results early the next year,(65) but nothing ever came of the effort, because in 1899, the Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company was one of the 13 independent car builders that merged to form the American Car & foundry Company.

The Jeffersonville plant specialized in freight cars, passenger cars and associated parts. An adjacent foundry produced castings and chilled iron wheels.

During the 1st World War, the Jeffersonville plant produced escort wagons, wagon wheels and nose forgings for shells for the U.S. Army. It also produced up to 20,000 shirts a day. (That's correct, shirts!) It also developed the first rolling kitchen and the Phillips packsaddle, a large, steel-framed and heavily padded structure designed to let mules carry howitzer components or other heavy loads.

"Rolling Kitchen" of 1st World War
A "Rolling Kitchen" on the Russian Front, 1918. These were greatly appreciated by the troops and figure in many unit histories.

Production of railroad cars fell off during the 1920s, and the Jeffersonville plant was closed in 1930. It was reopened during the 2nd World War to supply various castings and shell forgings to other ACF plants, but was closed again in 1945. The former plant buildings are now occupied by a number of businesses known collectively as Water Tower Place.

The following is from Whitford, Nobel E. History of the Canal System of the State of New York. Volume II, Chapter 3, “Biographies of Engineers.” 1906. Online at

Joseph White Sprague was born 18 January 1831 at Salem, MA. He prepared for college at the Latin Grammar School of Salem under Oliver Carlton; graduated from Harvard in 1852 with the degree of A.B., supplemented in 1855 by the degree of A.M.; died May 22, 1900, at Vallombrosa, Italy.

Before graduating Mr. Sprague was for a short time engaged in making solar calculations for the United States Nautical Almanac and for one year was Instructor in the highest mathematics in the engineering department. From 1854 to 1862 he acted as Engineer on the enlargement of the Erie canal with the exception of the time required to make the preliminary survey for the Chesapeake and Albemarle canal, through a portion of the Dismal Swamp of Virginia. Mr. Sprague served as Second Assistant Engineer on the New York canals from 1858 to 1862. In 1858, representing the Board of Trade of St. Louis, he investigated the obstructions of navigation of the Mississippi river caused by the pier of the railroad bridge at Rock Island. Retiring from the employ of the State in 1862 he became Civil Engineer on the Ohio and Mississippi R.R., with which he remained until elected, in 1866, President of the Ohio Falls Car & Locomotive Company of Jeffersonville, Ind., which position he left in 1888 and the remainder of his life was spent in traveling in Europe and Asia.

18 January 2007

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