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

St. Louis Car Company

Union Car Company

The St. Louis Car Company was founded 4 April 1887 at St. Louis, Missouri, as a joint stock company {424} for the explicit purpose of building streetcars. Common stock of $25,000 was subscribed and paid for at $100 per share. Each of the seven stockholders was elected to the Board of Directors. The following table shows how many shares each took and what their offices were.

Name Shares Office
William Lefmann 80  
Peter Kling 75 Treasurer
Julius Lefmann 30 Secretary
Henry Schroeder 30  
Daniel McAllister 20 President
Henry Maune 10  
Charles Ernst 5  

A 48,370 square foot building was contracted for at a cost of $20,000. It would be 150' long and three stories high. The first floor was the mill, the second the erecting area, and the third the paint shop and metal-working area. The floors were connected by elevators large enough to hold an entire car. (But remember, these were streetcars, and they were a lot smaller then.) The plant’s location at 3023 North Broadway was just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, down which a great deal of lumber was being floated from the forests of Wisconsin.

The building was completed, a stock of dried lumber was laid in and the first employees were hired—all by sometime in August.

Click pic to enlarge.

But these efforts had completely exhausted the initial capitalization. Accordingly, on 12 August 1887 capital was increased to $50,000. How this was apportioned among the original stockholders, or whether more stockholders were added, we don’t know. Orders were not slow in coming, and the first cars were shipped in October.

By the end of 1887, production capacity was estimated at 400 cars per year ... if only the company had sufficient capital. So in early 1888, the capitalization of the company was increased yet again: this time to $150,000. It is likely it came from the Kobusch family of St. Louis, as George J. Kobusch was soon appointed Secretary of the company.

Business was good. The streetcar industry was booming. And in 1889 the 400 car capacity was exceeded. In 1890, new building would be erected and new machinery acquired.

It was in 1890 that John H. Kobusch (the apparent money-man of the second raise in capital) forced out McAllister and Kling and took over the positions of President and Treasurer himself. At the same time he elevated Kling to a vice-presidency and made him General Manager of the plant. He soon vacated the treasurer’s office in favor of his son, the aforementioned George J. Kobush.

1891 was a boom year for St. Louis Car. By the beginning of 1892 it claimed to be producing 100 cars a month, and the factory was working day and night. Where lack of capital had been the impediment to production earlier, lack of facilities now became an impediment. Tracks were laid in the surrounding streets for test running newly minted cars, and space was leased from the St. Louis Railroad Company.

The depression that began with the 1893 stock market crash was largely mitigated for the streetcar industry by the tremendous growth taking place in that mode of transportation. By 1894 St. Louis Car was reported to have between 500 and 700 cars on order as yet unbuilt.

New Orleans Streetcars
The first electric streetcars in New Orleans were built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1893.

In March 1894, the capitalization of the company was again increased, this time to $500,000. (Almost $10 million in today’s buying power!) In 1895, John Kobusch (the father) died, and George Kobusch (the son) advanced from Secretary-Treasurer of the company to the Presidency. He brought with him a more dynamic approach to the business: one more in keeping with the energy with which new streetcar lines were being started and old ones expanded.

Business was truly booming, and St. Louis Car was bursting at the seams. It needed more facilities, but had no room to expand. It nevertheless managed to cope until 1897. In that year, a new streetcar company—the Union Car Company—was started by several men who had been involved in the streetcar manufacturing business in St. Louis. They erected the beginnings of a plant on a 16 acre site in Baden (a small town on the Mississippi River about 8 miles north of downtown St. Louis and now the northernmost point of that city). Before Union could fill more than one order, George Kobusch swept in and bought the company.

Now with space and to spare, Kobusch began to build a huge, modern car building facility. The center of attention was a huge erecting shop 300' x 624' and 20' high with 40 parallel tracks connected by a 60' transfer table running its full length. Its size reportedly made it possible to manufacture 300 cars at the same time.

Grouped to one side were a blacksmith shop with the most modern of heavy equipment, a machine shop, a sawmill, a lumber yard and a cabinet shop. Parts and pieces of a car were made in these various ancillary areas and brought to the erecting shop for assembly into the final car. More than four miles of private electric railway connected the various areas, and connected the plant to a mainline railroad.

But by 1900, young company President George Kobush and set-in-his-ways General Manager Peter Kling were having “personality problems.” Kobusch pushed ahead with modernizing the company, while Kling tried to manage the increasingly complex facilities with the tried-and-true methods of a self-taught mechanic. Finally, in 1900, Kling had had enough, and left to join the far smaller John Stephenson Car Company in New Jersey. He was replaced by Henry F. Vogel, who had joined the company in 1893 as Traffic Manager, and had been promoted to Kling’s assistant in 1898.

Vogel was a much better manager, who easily delegated authority to the foremen supervising the various departments of the works. But even with the new facilities and better management, St. Louis Car was not able to keep up with the flow of business, In 1902, another erecting shop, this one at least partially two-stories high, and 100' x 563', was added. The next year the mill area was increased by more than 50% and the original erecting shop more than doubled in size.

"Freight car" for electric roads
Freight car” for electric railroads: here a 44-footer for the East St. Louis and Belleville Electric Railway, built 1901 by St. Louis Car Company.

At the turn of the century, there had been four competing streetcar builders in the city of St. Louis: the American Car Company, the Brownell Car Company, the Laclede Car Company, and the St. Louis Car Company. Brownell had been taken over by American in 1900. American in turn had been acquired by the J.G. Brill Company in 1902. And Laclede was acquired by St. Louis Car 25 April 1903, ostensibly as a means of giving St. Louis improved capacity.

The take-over of Laclede required even more capital, and in May it was increased to $1,500,000. (More than $30 million in today’s buying power!) All this, coupled with employment of 2,500 men, gave St. Louis Car an estimated capacity of 3,000 cars per year. Nevertheless, the reality of the situation was that orders for heavy interurban cars—which were becoming the rage—tended to be for fewer cars, and the cars required more set-up work and took longer to build than streetcars. Young says the “company was barely able to reach half its estimated potential production capability, even in its most prosperous years.” {178}


11 April 2006

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