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

The John Stephenson Car Co.

Stephenson Company Letterhead of 1876

The John Stephenson Car Company had its beginnings in May of 1831, when John Stephenson opened a shop at 667 Broadway in New York City to build carriages. Twenty-two year old Stephenson had favorably impressed Abram [Abraham] Bower—owner of an intra-city stagecoach line—who encouraged him to open his own shop. {283}

Brower had established the first ever municipal public transportation system in 1827, when he began operating a regular horse-drawn vehicle up and down Broadway from Wall Street to Bleecker, offering transportation at a fixed fare of one shilling. Brower’s first vehicle was somewhat like a stage-coach, but with four rows of seats all facing forward. Entrance to each row was from the side. He called this vehicle Accommodation. A year or so later, he introduced an improved vehicle, again somewhat like a stage-coach, but with two facing rows of seats and entrance at the rear. He called this one, naturally, Sociable.

In 1831, Brower commissioned Stephenson to produce a much longer, boxier coach, similar to a French one of which he had seen a drawing. This too had facing seats and entrance at the rear. It was described as “four and a half feet in width, had elevated or elliptical springs, and swelled very slightly at the sides . . . the word ‘Omnibus’ [was] painted on both sides.” {396} Brower’s “invention” was such a success that by 1835 there were more than a hundred omnibuses [omnibeese?] running on the streets of New York. Naturally, Stephenson became the preeminent builder.

Stephenson Advertisement from 1853 This 1853 Stephenson advertisement gives a good idea of what the original Omnibus must have looked like. By this time he was getting orders from everywhere.

A fire destroyed Stephenson’s shop 29 March 1832, but he seized the moment and moved to a larger shop at 246 Elizabeth Street near Bleecker, where later that year he constructed the first passenger car built in the United States. {398}

(Some choose to argue whether this was a railway car or a streetcar. In later years Stephenson, who by then built only streetcars, referred to it as a streetcar, and it was so called by contemporary writers. But when it was built, there was little distinction. A railway car was about as likely to be horse-drawn as a streetcar; both were in their infancy. Peter Cooper had built his storied Tom Thumb steam locomotive only two years before, and Stephenson’s cars would initially be drawn by horses, and only later by a steam locomotive.)

John Mason, a prominent banker and merchant, had envisioned a new kind of omnibus: one running on rails like a railroad, but laid in the street. A charter was granted by the New York legislature for such a railroad to run from 4th Avenue and the Bowery north to the Harlem River, and thus was born the New York & Harlem Railroad. Stephenson built two cars for this street railway, one of which was named (what else?) the John Mason. Both cars were divided into three compartments, each of which held 10 passengers. They looked somewhat like three stage-coaches glued together and mounted on a four-wheeled bogie, not unlike other railway cars of the day. But there was one critical difference: Stephenson built the body around the wheels, lowering it nearly 12", placing the seats over the wheels, but constructing the floors as drop wells between the wheels. He was issued a patent for this idea in April 1833.

Stephenson 1833 patent drawing Drawing from John Stephensons 1833 patent. See anything missing?


Both the railway car and omnibus businesses boomed. The President, the Mentor, and the For-Get-Me-Not are among the names of cars built for the New York & Harlem, while similar cars were built for the Paterson & Hudson River Railroad, the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad and lines in Cuba and Florida. {283}

By 1836, double truck [bogie] cars were becoming popular, and Stephenson built a large new plant on 4h Avenue between 132nd and 134th Streets where he could construct them. {283}

In 1837, Stephenson produced one of the most distinctive designs ever built. The whole side of the car body was an exposed lattice-work truss. (You can see it at the lower right of the lithograph below) This design was among the first to apply bridge construction technique to support a car body between two bogies. The cars were referred to as X-frame or Diamond Frame cars due to the diamond shape of their windows.

One such car was named the Auburn. It was reserved for through passengers, and had 30 double-reversible seats. A stovepipe ran the length of the car to provide more even heating. Glass windows were stationary, with wooden panels between that opened for air. The Rochester Daily Democrat newspaper called it a “traveling palace . . . gorgeously flowered and varnished.” {9} Cars of the same pattern were built for several different railways.

The financial panic of 1837 and the resulting long depression slowed car orders to a trickle. Stephenson was soon deep in debt and struggling to stay above water. One means he used was to build vehicles for those to whom he owed money. He reportedly presented a four-horse wagon to one creditor, John Malt, who paraded it on Broadway displaying a sign, This is the way one bankrupt pays his debts; his name is Honest John Stephenson. {12}


11 April 2006

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