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

Pressed Steel Car Co. - Page 2

The stock market plunge of 1907 undoubtedly decreased car orders, but we have no direct evidence of its affect on Pressed Steel. But the next year, Pressed Steel adopted the staged-assembly method of construction. Instead of building a car in-place, with successive groups of men bringing tools and assemblies to where the car was being assembled, cars under construction were moved through a series of 10 to 13 assembly “stations,” where tools and assemblies could be grouped according to the needs of the particular operation being performed.

Pressed Steel had experienced labor problems in the past, including work stoppages in 1899 and 1901. But the “big one” hit in 1909, just as economic conditions were returning to normal. In the 2nd week of July [sources differ as to whether it was the 12th or the 14th], 8,000 unskilled and semi-skilled workers—largely of Slavic origin and 1st or 2nd generation immigrants—at the McKees Rocks plant, went on strike.

Several factors contributed to the strike. a) Working conditions were poor, and wages were low. b) Six years earlier, during a previous strike, English-speaking workers who went out on strike had been largely replaced by recent immigrants who were willing to work for less. c) The company had recently instituted a “pool system” of compensation under which a group of workers was paid according to the output of the group, and the foreman of the group decided which member got what share of that payment.

Sources differ in describing the roll of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies),” a trade union noted for its revolutionary and oft-times violent views. Those who support the IWW viewpoint say they organized the workers and called the strike, while others suggest the IWW came on the scene after the strike began. But all sources agree that the company called in the Pennsylvania State Constabulary, better known as the Coal & Iron Police, to break the strike.

On 22 August, after five weeks of jockeying back and forth, violence erupted, with the result that five constables were killed, and six strikers, and more than fifty were wounded. The Press had a field day, and by early September, after 11 weeks, the strike was resolved. The company agreed to improve shop conditions, the “pool system” was dropped, and wages were raised by 15 percent. {237}

But through the following year the economy worsened instead of getting better, and in December of 1910, the New York Times was reporting that “foreigners” who had participated in the previous year’s “riots” were buying rifles and were again threatening to strike. {239}

In early 1912, with the national economy at its lowest ebb in years, President F.N. Hoffstot was quoted as saying, “car builders desiring to preserve their shop organizations offered to sell cars at about cost . . . but even so the total car orders placed were less than in any year since 1903.” {240}

1914 - At the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, industry needed to provide materials to improve transportation.  Pressed Steel had to produce equipment for rail lines within war zones.  The company also provided Russia with 12,000 cars, including gondolas, box cars, flatcars, and passenger cars.

1915 - The firm, principally a steam road car builder, also manufactured street and interurban cars, among them some of the earliest all-steel designs. Outstanding among its interurbans were 24 all-steel cars built in 1915 for high speed service over Pacific Electric’s premiere San Bernardino line.

1916 - Pressed Steel had the largest car plant in the United States, producing a new car every five minutes. {245}

USRA standard 55-ton hopper car built by Pressed Steel 1919.

In 1920s two plants, Allegheny and McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, boasted total annual capacity of 750 steam and street railway passenger cars and 45,000 freight cars.

1930s - faced bankruptcy and never fully recovered. Probably saved by the 2nd World War.

In 1940, during World War II, Pressed Steel started to produce large quantities of M-4 armored tanks and allied war materials for the war effort.  Also, from 1942 through 1945, many women started to work in the heavy industry.
Pressed Steel Car Company received an award for their excellent job in producing tanks on September 10, 1942.

In 1950, Pressed Steel announced its newest invention: a WOODEN CAR! Called Unicel, it was a combination freight-refrigerator car without a frame, built with an absolute minimum of steel. The new car was molded of plywood, using heat and special resins much the way fiberglass boats are made now. The car would be much lighter than steel cars of similar capacity, far stronger than steel, require less time to build, and the clincher for railroad operators: be cheaper! {257} It would also be airtight, a major plus for keeping a refrigerator car cold. {470}

Unicel was given extensive testing and accepted by the American Association of Railroads. And 70 of them were sold to the Saudi Arabian national railroad. {258} But most railroads’ mechanical officers voted against allowing interchange rights, without which the concept was doomed. The most obvious concern was the ability of railroad repair shops to handle repairs to cars of this unique, non-metal construction (just the reverse of the case with metal cars a half-century earlier). A further concern was for the long-term integrity of the “glue” joints; remember, this was 1950, before anyone had much experience with plastic resins. And the final concern, and likely the killer for anything railroad-wise: it was NEW! {470}

1954 - Diversified into non-railway products and in 1954 changed name to U.S. Industries

1956 - bought by U.S. Steel after it went out of business and closed. U.S. Steel used the property as a supply warehouse and the site then was occupied by a number of small businesses.

Cast of Characters

Samson FoxSamson Fox (1838-1903) was born at Bowling, Yorkshire, England. He went to work in a textile mill at age 10, and became an apprentice toolmaker five years later. His talent as a mechanic expanded and his reputation increased to the point he opened his own tool making business when in his late 20s. He proved to be a good manager as well, and ten years later organized the Leeds Forge to manufacture his own design of corrugated firebox marine boiler. He obtained a British patent on this in 1877. These proved such a success that Fox soon became wealthy.

Another product of the Leeds Forge was his Morrison Suspension Furnace. This was widely used as a source of steam for both marine and stationary steam engines.

It wasn’t long before Fox’s inventive mind and engineering expertise were applied to the perpetual problem of all railways: reducing the proportion of dead weight—called tare—to the load carried by the car. Fox saw that a great deal of weight could be saved in building a metal car if it were constructed of parts forged or “pressed” into specially designed shapes rather than built up out of standard structural members.

This idea proved very successful outside the United States. Trucks from Leeds Forge—and later cars as well—sold all over the world, including such diverse locations as Argentina, Belgium, Bengal, India, Japan and Spain. But Fox saw the United States as perhaps the ultimate market, so set forth in 1888 to market his trucks here. And thus the story told above.

We don’t know when Fox  returned to England, but return he did. It is said he was a friend of royalty and a great philanthropist, both before and after his sojourn in the United States.

Charles T. SchoenCharles T. Schoen (1844-1917) was born at Concord, Delaware. He early worked with his father at the cooper’s trade [barrel-making]. He moved to Philadelphia after the Civil War to learn the metal fabricating business. Later he and a brother opened their own business making springs. {218}

In 1888 the Schoen brothers began to market pressed steel stake pockets, corner irons and center plates. [Morell -115 says he was in business with his nephew William.] By 1890 their pressed steel center plates were reportedly on 7,000 cars. In July of that year, Charles obtained a patent for the design of a steel car. {218}

In 1892, his new Pittsburgh plant was also producing drawbar attachments, stake pockets and corner plates as well as trucks.  He was eager to produce entire cars of steel. {219}

In 1898 he began producing rolled-steel wheels using a process devised by Hendrik V. Loss—a process that took almost five years to perfect. In 1903, he established a separate plant to make wheels. In 1904 he sold 1,134 wheels, in 1905 22,332, and in 1906 58,590. The financial panic of 1907 reduced sales that year to 54,467. In 1908, Carnegie bought out Schoen, and in 1909 the plant produced 269,000 wheels. {256}

In 1901, Schoen was forced out of management. He opened a wheel plant at Butler, Pennsylvania, but sold out to U.S. Steel in 1907.

"Diamond Jim" BradyJames Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady (1856-1917) was born in New York City of Irish immigrant parents. His father ran a bar, and Jim grew up working there. At age 11—looking much older because of his weight—he got a job at the St. James Hotel working as a bellhop and part-time bartender. While performing these jobs, he became acquainted with John Toucey, a rising star with the New York Central Railroad.

When Brady was 15, Toucey got him a job as a baggage-handler for the New York Central Railroad. While working, he enrolled for night courses in bookkeeping at Paine’s Business College, After 18 months, Brady took the risk of becoming a ticket agent and baggage master at an outlying station of the New York Central.

After another two years, Brady became a clerk in John Toucey’s office in Grand Central Station, and by age 21 he was the chief clerk. Yet through a strange twist of fate, he was let go. By then he knew a great deal about the ins and outs of running a railroad, and Toucey recommended him to the railway supply firm of Manning, Maxwell & Moore.

At age 23, Brady knew little about salesmanship, but he knew a lot about railroading, and he had great ambition. He was also a natural charmer who made friends easily, wining and dining clients magnificently. But beneath the charming exterior lay a shrewd and analytical mind that looked not just at the present needs of his clients, but at the details of their business, and projected their future needs as well.

Early on, Brady had developed a taste for diamonds, as a way of impressing his prospective clients, because of  the look and feel of prosperity they proclaimed. So as he prospered greatly, he acquired more and more, to the place that by the mid-80s his clients were referring to him as “Diamond Jim.” At one time he reportedly owned 30 complete sets of jewelry estimated as worth well over $1 million.

In 1888, when Samson Fox came to the U.S. to try to sell his trucks and totally failed to make any sales, he was put in touch with Brady. Brady agreed to market Fox trucks as a side-line to the products of Manning, Maxwell & Moore. And he was eminently successful.

(Railway Age Gazette, 14 February 1913)

Just how much Brady was involved in the business (other than marketing) of the Fox or Pressed Steel companies is a good question. If one read only Jeffers, they would conclude he was the brains behind the entire operation, from introducing Fox’s trucks to the railroads of the United States, getting the first ones built here, and establishing first the Fox and later the Pressed Steel companies.

In 1902, Brady left Pressed Steel to help found the rival Standard Steel Car Company.

Brady was legendary not only for his collection of diamond jewelry, but for his gargantuan appetite. He was known to eat 6 or 7 giant lobsters, dozens of oysters, clams and crabs, 2 ducks, steak and desserts at a single sitting. He would also mash a pound of caviar into his baked potatoes. He became one of the best-known men in New York's Broadway nightlife.

In 1912 Brady gave funds to Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore (where he had received treatment), to found the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute.

For More Information

Schoen Pressed Steel Company of Pittsburg PA

Reproduction of 1898 advertising book. 40 pages of text and illustrations of very early steel RR car technology and economics.

“The Unicel Car,” Train Shed Cyclopedia (_____, CA: Newton K. Gregg, 1979)

Reproduction of material from the Railway Mechanical Engineer, November 1950, p. 697 and May 1952, p. 95.

Jeffers, H. Paul. Diamond Jim Brady : Prince of the Gilded Age. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

As much about the “Gilded Age” itself as about Diamond Jim. The author acknowledges indebtedness to Morell (below) as well he should, as it appears most of what he has to say about Diamond Jim comes from that source.

Morell, Parker. Diamond Jim; The Life and Times of James Buchanan Brady. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1934.

If you’re interested in Diamond Jim, Samson Fox, and more than the “Gilded Age,” prefer this over Jeffers. It is easily obtained through interlibrary loan, and if you have to buy it, is readily available for $6-12.

17 April 2006

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