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

Wason Manufacturing Company

T. & C. Wason
T.W. Wason Company

When most of us think of car-building in Springfield, Massachusetts, we think of the name Wason. But at one point in the mid-1800s Springfield had not one, not two, but FOUR car builders! If you are only interested in the Wason Manufacturing Company, read on. Otherwise you might want to take a look at our article titled Springfield’s Four.

Shortly after the first railroad train came through Springfield, Massachusetts, a pair of enterprising young men came southeastward down the Chicopee River system from their home in Hancock, New Hampshire, to work in the cotton mills of Cabotville, north of Springfield, Massachusetts. After awhile, brothers Charles and Thomas Wason set up shop on Cyprus Street, dressing timbers for the numerous railroad bridges being built in the area. Somehow they began doing a small business in repairing freight cars, and eventually began building them.

T. & C. Wason Advertisement 1851

(American Railway Times, 2 January 1851)

According to Cleave’s Biographical Cyclopædia of the State of Ohio

“Their total cash capital did not exceed fifteen hundred dollars. Their shop was so small that the first car built ‘stuck out of the shed part.’ [They] did all the wood work, making twelve freight cars in that shop during the year. The prospect for rapidly increasing business was so encouraging that they erected a more commodious building in the northern part of the then village, near the Western railroad depot. This shop was thirty by eighty feet.”

According to another source, {465} that 1st year they built “six single and two double freight cars [for the Connecticut River Railroad], receiving for the entire lot the sum of $4,700.” One supposes that a “single” car would be a 4-wheeled one and a “double” car an 8-wheeled one.

Several years later, some local businessmen also saw the possibilities in building cars in New England for New England railroads, and incorporated the Springfield Car & Engine Company. With capital of $100,000 (roughly $2 million today, though we don't know how much of that was paid-in), they went all-out in erecting extensive buildings and filling them with machinery. But for some reason, possibly

o lack of paid-in capital
o lack of orders
o dissention among the stockholders
o lack of interest by the managing stockholder
o inability to hire a qualified mechanical manager

within a year their entire works was shut down. Thomas and Charles saw the possibilities, too, and immediately bought the machinery of the car department of the former plant, leased the shops for five years, and began to build all kinds of cars, giving special attention to passenger cars. With more appropriate facilities, their business increased rapidly and they began to make a name for themselves.

Conventional wisdom says Charles Wason left the firm in the spring of 1852 to establish his own car plant in Cleveland, but the date, at least, is incorrect.

o One source, {402} dated 1868, says “In 1851 Mr. Thos. W. Wason became sole proprietor of the works by the purchase of his brother’s interest, and in the latter part of that year purchased a foundry for making Car Wheels and other castings.”
o Another source, {457} dated 1884, says Thomas “became sole owner” in 1851.
o Finally, the advertisement below was run as early as 14 March 1850. It stopped for awhile and resumed in August of 1851. But since the ad says he is “now prepared to execute orders,” it may have been the following spring that Charles actually did begin executing orders.


Chas. Wason 1851 Advertisement
This advertisement ran from August 1851 through October 1852. (American Railway Times, 23 October 1851.)

After several years as a sole proprietor, and no doubt due to a shortage of capital, in 1853 Thomas sold a half interest in the business {460} to L.O. Hansen, Josiah Bumstead and J.S. Mellen {459} and a “company” was formed with capital of $20,000. {461} Within the year, George C. Fisk, whom Wason had hired as bookkeeper the previous year, bought Mellen’s 1/6 interest for $3,333, {462} and became treasurer of the company. {6} At this time, Wason was employing about 150 men, and was operating its own foundry.

In 1856, Wason took on a draftsman who was to make history: Milton Bradley. Bradley did the drawings for a luxurious private railroad car constructed for the Khedive of Egypt in 1860. His work on the lithography for that project stimulated him to found his own lithographic firm in Springfield, which later became the games manufacturing company that bears his name today.

Early in 1857, despite advice to the contrary, Wason agreed to build a sleeping car using the recent patents of Theodore Woodruff. This was arguably the first real sleeping car. Wason went on to build many cars for T.T. Woodruff & Company, and became world famous for its luxurious cars.

In 1858, Wason built some sixteen-wheel sleeping cars for the Michigan Southern, and two years later produced the above-mentioned elaborate car for the Viceroy of Egypt. It was 67' long, weighed 20 tons, and had an open center section surrounded by scrolled iron railings and covered by a canopy. As late as 1978, this car minus most of its trimmings was still occasionally used by the Egyptian government. {3}

There must have been much more to the order from the Egyptian government order, as $300,000 was “received for the work.” {457} (That would equate to almost $6.5 million today!)

In 1862, Wason propitiously incorporated the business, as the Wason Manufacturing Company, increasing its capital to $150,000. This was later increased again to $300,000. Thomas W. Wason was president of the new corporation; {457} George C. Fisk continued in the position of treasurer; Henry S. Hyde—having had the foresight to marry Wason’s daughter—became the “clerk” [bookkeeper?]; and L.O. Hansen became “superintendent” [general manager?]. {402} The Springfield City Directory for 1862-63 contains a listing for Wason Manufacturing Co. -- railroad car builders, Lyman St.” Earlier directories listed “T.W. Wason & Co., car builders, Lyman St.

When George Pullman returned in 1863 from his adventure in Colorado, His partner, Ben Field, had built another sleeping car for the Alton Railroad and had contracts for four more. The first was the Springfield, built by Wason. It had 14 sections with a stateroom at each end. During the day, it gave the appearance of a parlor with sofas along each side. But at night the sofa bottoms slid out from the wall, the backs folded down, the upper berths were lowered, and damask curtains were drawn across the sections, leaving a 36" aisle between them. Linen was provided equivalent to a first-class hotel. The 56-passenger car rode on four, 4-wheeled trucks, which reduced side-sway to almost nothing. {4}

But Pullman decided he could do better building his own cars [read that: ‘make more money’], so he and Wason parted company.

Wason Manufacturing Company Advertisement Advertisement from 1869/70 edition of Poor’s Manual of Railroads.


11 April 2006

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