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

John Stephenson Car Co. - Page 2

Just as he was reaching his financial limit, Stephenson built two large 8-wheeled sleeping cars for the New York & Erie railroad using his lattice or Diamond frame design. These cars—the Erie and the Ontario—were 11 feet wide, befitting the Erie’s 5-foot track gauge, and equipped with seats that had been patented as convertible sofa beds intended for household use. On the Erie, these cars were used simply as parlor cars; no sleeper service on a railroad that was then less than three hours end-to-end! In 1879, when the Pullman Company would bring suit against the Wagner Sleeping Car Company to recover damages for infringement on the Pullman patents, evidence of the 1842 Erie Diamond cars would be presented, and both sides would be so nonplussed that the proceedings would be halted and a compromise agreed upon lest both sides lose their profits!

John Stephenson Company Advertisement
Stephenson advertisement from 1840. Note the “Diamond-Frame” car in the lower right corner.

But by 1842, Stephenson could continue no longer. Like so many other car builders since, he had accepted notes and bonds from many railway customers as payment in lieu of cash, and as times worsened this “paper” became worthless. Stephenson was forced to close his shop, vowing never to build another railway car. In a way, he did keep his vow: he never again built a car for a steam railway. But he sure did build streetcars!

Only a year after his failure [1843], John Stephenson was back in business and erected a new factory: a four-story building 44 feet wide by 100 feet deep, on 27th Street between Madison and 4th Avenues. This just happened to be opposite the New York & Harlem Railroad depot. {397} Two years later [1845] he would expand this facility with a six-story building 200 feet long, extending all the way through the block to 28th street. {396}

There Stephenson began building streetcars for the city of New York while continuing to build wagons and omnibuses. Demand for the latter was increasing steadily. In 1846 there were reportedly 255 omnibuses in service in New York City, 376 in 1849 and 683 in 1853. By 1856, Stephenson employed 200 men in the production of 300 omnibuses a year. {15}

While the omnibus market flourished, so did the horse car market. It seemed that virtually every street in the city was destined to have a horse car line. But this, of course, worked against the omnibus market. Stephenson began building cars for the 3rd Avenue line, and by 1859 was fully involved in the streetcar business.

Imagine doing this kind of business in a six-story, downtown building, where raw materials had to be moved from storage on one floor to a smith shop or wood shop on another, and the finished parts moved to yet another floor for assembly; and the completed car from the erecting shop to the paint shop on yet another floor. Although these cars were tiny by today’s standards, the building’s elevator(s) obviously had to be rather large and quite busy!

As in everything he undertook, John Stephenson began to improve  horse car design.

White {16} says —

The boxy arch-roofed cars soon gave way to lighter models with pleasing swelled sides and ogee roofs. The lower panels were concaved for less weight and better clearances. Roof windows or clerestories improved lighting and ventilation and became a fixed feature of streetcars for many generations. By the mid-1860s the clerestory ran the full length of the car body. Stephenson came to call this the Bombay roof, presumably because it was first used on cars built for that city.

Bishop {396} says —

“[by] applying the principles which his experience as an Omnibus builder had demonstrated to be of value . . . [Stephenson] was able to decrease the weight of these [horse cars] from six thousand to thirty-five thousand pounds, without in the least diminishing their strength.”

Stephenson is also generally credited with creating a reversible horse car: a car with the body mounted to the single bogie by means of  a pivot, so that the car body could be turned on its undercarriage, thus avoiding the need for a turntable. This car appears to have been patented in 1859.

Stephenson's Revolving Car

Stephenson's revolving horsecar could turn around without being turned around.

But John Prentice points out that Stephenson’s Patent No. 26,626 (27 December 1859) in fact does not cover the whole vehicle, but just a braking system for reversible cars that could be operated from the driver’s seat no matter in which direction the body was facing. The lack of a claim for the basic idea clearly indicates that such cars were already being built, but “hitherto ... made without brakes or so that the brakes could be used only in one direction.” [Quote from Stephenson’s patent.] Stephenson may indeed have created the concept. We’ll never know. But he did not have a patent on it!

So far, we have found 18 U.S. Patents issued to, or assigned to, John Stephenson. We’re sure there must be a lot more. Here’s our list. If you know of others, please share them with us.

Patent Number Date Issued Status Description
Unnumbered Apr 1833 Issued Passenger car
26,626 27 Dec 1859 Issued Brake for reversible cars
32,681 2 Jul 1861   Improvement for opening railroad-car doors
61,481 22 Jan 1867 Issued Flexible suspension for 4-wheeled streetcars
87,121 23 Feb 1869 Issued Detachable wheel housings
147,190 3 Feb 1874 Issued Device for Operating Street-Car Doors
150,906 12 May 1874 Issued Bob-tail car with rear door operable from front
155,118 15 Sep 1874 Issued Device for Operating Street Car-Doors
161,565 30 Mar 1875 Issued Removable car seats
161,570 30 Mar 1875 Issued Longitudinal ribbing in streetcar body
296,480 8 Apr 1884 Issued Car axle box and overload springing
378,470 28 Feb 1888 Issued Tram Car Roof
378,471 28 Feb 1888 Issued Tram Car Sash Rail
378,473 28 Feb 1888 Issued Tram Car Window
378,476 28 Feb 1888 Issued Tram Car Dash Cap
378,480 28 Feb 1888 Issued Summer car with aisle
450,848 21 Apr 1891 Issued Vestibule Street Car
491,608 14 Feb 1893 Issued Sliding door for streetcars
693,611 18 Feb 1902 Assigned  
RE6,057 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division A
RE6,058 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division B
RE6,059 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division C
RE6,060 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division D
RE6,061 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division E
RE6,062 22 Sep 1874 Assigned Reissue of 32,681 Division F
RE6,428 11 May 1875 Reissued Reissue of 155,118
RE6,429 11 May 1875 Reissued Reissue of 155,118

In 1860, Stephenson produced his first fare-box, or bobtail, car—built for one-man operation—according to the design of John B. Slawson. This was an extremely lightweight car that became very popular. By 1883, Stephenson claimed more than half of all American street railways were running fare-box cars. He subsequently hired Slawson, whose patents became a valuable asset of the Stephenson firm.

During the Civil War Stephenson supplied the Union Army with gun carriages and pontoons.

By 1867, fifty-eight year old John Stephenson was ready to begin to enjoy the fruits of his years of labor. The firm—heretofore a sole proprietorship—was reorganized as the John Stephenson Company, and several of Stephenson’s associates were taken in as partners.

As the 1870s dawned, business was booming, and John Stephenson began building himself a lavish estate.

The writer of a vanity biography of American businesses [407] published in 1876, but copyrighted in 1874, and probably reflecting information gathered at least a year before, extolled the Stephenson firm thusly —

“The main building of the establishment is six stories in height, built of brick in the most substantial manner, and the whole includes a smith shop and iron works; wood machinery shop; wheel shop; body shop; paint shop; trimming shop and a cabinet shop; besides store rooms, which are of necessity very large.”

“The firm employ [sic] about 300 skilled hands in the various departments, all of whom are practical men, many of whom are artists and special experts in their business. The painting and ornamentation of omnibuses and street cars is a delicate matter, and can be performed only by skillful artists. Most of these men have been long in the employ of Mr. Stephenson...”

*   *   *

“As already stated, the business of Messrs. Stephenson & Co., is confined to the manufacture of omnibuses and street cars, therefore the vast increase in street railways which has taken place within the last few years, has taxed the establishment to its full capacity. Although the street railway system is comparatively in its infancy [in the United States], it prevails in Mexico, Cuba, South America, on the west as well as the east coast; in Europe, to some extent, though not largely; in eastern Russia, Japan, the East Indies, &c. &c. Messers. Stephenson & Co., are shipping their cars and omnibuses to all these countries, even to London.” [Emphasis ours.]

But the halcyon days of the post Civil War period were about to come to an end. In September of 1876 the bottom fell out of the stock market; businesses began to fail. Railroads—steam and street as well—had no money for cars: even those already ordered. John Stephenson must have felt déjà vu all over again. The expenditures on his lavish estate and of his philanthropies left him strapped for cash, with little hope of further business: he had to ask his creditors for an extension of his notes, but then had to suspend payment altogether. He overcame this by forming a joint stock company {424}—the John Stephenson Company Limited—and paying off most of his creditors in stock.

Stephenson advertisement from 1888 Car-Builders’ Dictionary.


Between 1876 and 1891 Stephenson reportedly built some 25,000 streetcars for the U.S. and abroad, including a full line of single and double trucks for street railway service. In 1878, the Stephenson works had orders for London; Paris; Port Adelaide, Australia; Lima, Peru; St. Petersburg, Russia; Hull, Swansea and Liverpool, England; Bahia, Brazil; Berlin; Jalapa, Mexico; Amsterdam, Holland; Wellington, New Zealand; Christiana, Norway; Rio de Janeiro; Hamburg and a score of other places. {14}


11 April 2006

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