From Small Town to Downtown: A History of the Jewett Car Company, 1893-1919

From Small Town to Downtown: A History of the Jewett Car Company, 1893-1919

by Lawrence A. Brough, James H. Graebner


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The Jewett Car Company was born in Akron, Ohio, in the heyday of the electric railway boom in the 1890s. The company gained an excellent reputation for its elegant, well-built wooden cars for street railway companies, interurban lines, and rapid transit service. Cities large and small used Jewett cars. Many interurban lines employed the graceful, arch-windowed, wood interurban that Jewett was famous for. Competition from automobiles and from larger car builders such as J. G. Brill and the St. Louis Car Company signaled the beginning of the end for Jewett. The company was offered the opportunity to produce munitions for World War I, but refused when a German nationalist banker who was a major source of financing for Jewett refused to allow the company to do anything that would harm Germany. As a result, the Jewett Car Company died, but the reputation of their product survives to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253343697
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/06/2004
Series: Railroads Past and Present
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Lawrence A. Brough is a retired metallurgical engineer. He belongs to the Society of Automotive Historians and has written several articles for auto history publications as well as the book Autos on the Water. He lives in Newark, Ohio.

James H. Graebner has his own public transit consulting practice. He has been active in the American Public Transportation Association and served two terms as its president. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

From Small Town to Downtown

A History of the Jewett Car Company, 1893-1919

By Lawrence A. Brough, James H. Graebner

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2004 Lawrence A. Brough and James H. Graebner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34369-7


The Jewett Connection

The early 1890s was a time of great optimism for street-railway promoters. After the successful demonstration of Frank Sprague's electric cars in Richmond, Virginia, a few years earlier, operators all over the country began electrifying their horse-car lines faster than you could say "tickets, please." It was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs began to think about extending rails between towns. It is widely accepted among traction historians that the first of these interurbans was the Newark & Granville Street Railway, which began service in December 1889 between Newark and Granville, Ohio, a distance of eight miles. Ohio was soon to be host to the highest number of interurban railway miles in the country.

In Akron, Ohio, John F. Seiberling (whose sons later founded the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company) had gained control of the Akron Street Railway and was anxious to expand his railway holdings. Deciding to build his own cars, in December 1892 he fitted out the Akron Street Railway's old South Main Street car barn to build car bodies. As reported in the Akron Beacon and Republican, "The magnitude of the enterprise depends entirely on its success, but the beginning will be small." John C. Boyd, an experienced car builder from nearby Canton, was hired as superintendent. The new venture was called the Akron Car Company.

The year 1893 began well enough, and the Akron Car Company landed an order for several nice cars for the Sandusky Milan & Fluron Electric Railway, an interurban line then under construction to connect Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie through Milan to Norwalk, eighteen miles to the south. A branch line to Huron was also to be included. The Sandusky Milan & Huron Electric Railway had obtained its charter and begun construction the previous year and was well along in preparing the grade, track, and power house. However, the events of June 1893 very nearly brought an abrupt end to the project. In that month, the stock market experienced a crash of such magnitude that it plunged the country into a prolonged period of economic misery so pronounced that it was called the Great Depression until it was surpassed by the economic conditions of the 1930s.

Before long, several railroads and several hundred banks had failed, making it very difficult for the electric railway to raise the funds it needed to complete the interurban line and buy equipment, and it was forced into receivership. The receiver made a valiant effort to persuade several prominent local businessmen, who had already invested in the line, to dig a little deeper, and soon the needed funds were pledged. But the project was pared back by eliminating the branch line to Huron and the name was changed to the Sandusky Milan & Norwalk Electric Railway to better reflect the towns it was to serve.

In the meantime, in early 1893, apparently finding its former car barn too small and inconvenient for its rapidly increasing business, the Akron Car Company directors decided that they needed a larger factory and sent John Boyd to look for a new site. Following the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad south from Akron about fifty miles, Boyd found in the little, 750-person, Harrison County town of Jewett, Ohio, a citizenry eager and ready to help finance a new factory. He proposed to erect a plant capable of employing 100 men if the town would provide three acres near the railroad (the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad also passed through Jewett) along with a bonus of $10,000, half of which could be raised through the sale of company stock. A local landowner agreed to survey into lots a piece of ground that he owned and apply half of the sale price of each lot to cover the other $5,000. The three-acre plant site was quickly donated, the $10,000 bonus was raised, and by May 1893 construction was under way. By late summer, the new Jewett Car Company, as it was to be called, had erected a building 70' wide by 250' long near the railroad that was equipped with the best of modern machinery and powered by a 68-horsepower engine. Soon twenty workmen were busy building cars.

There can be little doubt about the connection between the Jewett Car Company and the Akron interests; the Jewett Car Company stock certificates bore an illustration of an Akron Street Railway streetcar. The effects of the June stock-market crash, however, began to ripple through the economy, and Seiberling's many business interests began to fail. He effectively retired, and John Boyd was left in charge of the new enterprise in Jewett. Since none of the local men had any experience in building railroad cars, Boyd hired Neil Paulson from the Pullman Car Company to be general manager. Paulson's experience and contacts in the industry were expected to be a great asset to the firm, and he brought with him from Chicago skilled workers to help train the local men.

Still in control of the contract for the Sandusky Milan & Huron Electric Railway cars, the Akron Car Company in August 1893 filed a suit against the interurban line for payment of freight on the car trucks which had been shipped from Chicago. Construction of the cars had been far enough along that they had been lettered "SM&H" on their ends before the line changed its name to the Sandusky Milan & Norwalk in October of that year. As a result, the cars ended up lettered "SM&H" on their ends and "Sandusky Milan & Norwalk" on their sides.

The Akron Car Company had secured the contract to build the cars with the agreement that they would be delivered under terms that required no down payment but rather equal installments in 30, 60, and 90 days (terms the car company would, no doubt, later regret). The cost of the cars was to be $12,000 plus $4,000 for the trucks. By fall, the first of the new cars had been delivered and were operating.

As he related in his book about the Sandusky Milan & Norwalk Electric Railway, R. G. Morrison, who grew up in Norwalk in the 1890s, recalled that Car No. 9 was quite slow and probably did not exceed twenty-five miles per hour. It was understood that the car had only one 50-horsepower motor (it actually had two 20-horsepower Westinghouse motors), which resulted in very little power. There were controls at both ends of the car, and when it was going down a steep hill on the line, the motorman at one end and the conductor at the other both had to have their hand brakes wound down tight to keep the car under control. During winter, when the snow was heavy, the car did not operate at all. Inside it had cane seats that were reasonably comfortable (the other cars had wooden seats that were quite hard). The electric lights were very poor and practically went out when the car started up.

The new trolley line became a lifeline between the communities it served. On one occasion, a Milan housewife, not wanting to get stuck for the weekend with her niece and nephew from Sandusky, actually flagged down the last car of the day with her apron to make sure her young relatives caught the car home. With the first cars completed and in service, the Jewett Car Company began advertising for new business using car No. 9 of the Sandusky Milan & Norwalk Electric Railway in its ads. Although the ad stated that they built horse and cable cars, by 1893 horse-car lines were being electrified at a rapid pace, and it is doubtful that Jewett ever made any such cars.

Despite an influx of orders for lines in Middletown, New York, and Brigantine, New Jersey, the health of the young company was not good. The generous no-down-payment policy and the deepening countrywide financial crisis caused the firm to simply run out of money. In October 1894, after barely a year of operation, the Jewett Car Company voluntarily went into receivership because, as stated in the court records, the company "is indebted to diverse persons whose claims it is unable to pay promptly and in full as they become due and payable." At the time, there were seven unfinished cars in the shop valued at $3,500 and three finished cars at Middletown, New York, valued at $1,500 plus the buildings, equipment, and materials, representing total assets of $26,000. Unpaid obligations stood at $8,041.78, so things did not look all that bleak.

The local newspaper reported at the time that the company hoped that its embarrassment was only temporary. However, it appears that the plant operated only sporadically over the next couple of years and prospects dimmed. In June 1896, the first efforts to sell the Jewett Car Company as a complete facility were undertaken. There were no takers. It was reported in the Jewett Age that the company would be "torn up and offered in pieces." There still was no interest on the part of investors. It was a bit of irony that the land on which the plant had been erected had been provided by the local undertaker! It lay idle until the fall of 1897, when a group of investors from Wheeling, West Virginia, bought the assets and incorporated, in West Virginia, a new Jewett Car Company and Planing Mill to operate the Harrison County, Ohio, plant. Unfortunately, the original investors lost all that they had put into the venture.

The new investment group included a number of prominent Ohio Valley brewers and bankers, but the principal members were Albert Sisson and Charles Krebs, both successful Wheeling contractors whose experience was a good fit for wooden-car body-building; Anton and Paul Reymann (father and son), president and vice president of the Reymann Brewing Company (the largest in West Virginia at the time); and William S. Wright, manager of the Wheeling & Elm Grove Railway.

Wheeling at that time was heavily influenced by a large population of German extraction. The Reymanns, wealthy descendants of German immigrants themselves, included in their business interests the Wheeling & Elm Grove Railway and the Germania Half Dollar Savings Bank (which provided a substantial part of the financing for the new company). The Wheeling & Elm Grove Railway, originally a horse-drawn affair, was built primarily to carry thirsty Germans to Wheeling Park, a local beer garden, where they could enjoy their favorite Reymann lager. The elder Reymann tried to improve the railway by introducing small steam engines to replace the horses, but they were not well received by the neighborhood residents because of the soot, noise, and perceived danger. When the line was electrified, William Wright was hired away from the Wheeling Traction Company as manager.

The new Jewett owners wasted no time and immediately began construction of an addition to the plant that was 50' by 160' in anticipation of the orders that were to come. Indeed, by February 1898, the Cadiz Republican reported that "a contract has been taken for quite a number of street cars for St. Louis." Neil Paulson was reemployed as superintendent, and by June the Republican was reporting that the shop had "a capacity for turning out three perfected cars a week, although work is ordinarily in progress on many more at one time. The work of one week uses up 14,000 feet of lumber. There are about 350,000 feet of lumber at the plant at the present time, much of it poplar, cherry, quarter-oak and other fine lumbers, although nearly every kind is used. Quite a large variety of material goes into the construction of a street car, requiring the talent of many different kinds of skilled labor."

The Republican article continued, "The works at present employ between fifty and sixty men, the monthly payroll runs from $2,000 to $2,500. In the purchase of material, payment of hands and all other expenses, the works are doing a business of about one hundred thousand dollars per annum. ... The firm has recently built cars for Wheeling, Parkersburg, and Moundsville, West Virginia. Work is in progress on a lot of especially large and fine cars for East St. Louis, Illinois, each 44 feet long with seats for 48 persons, very finely furnished, each car named for a state."

In 1899, the company experimented with self-propelled motor cars and built a 41'6" wooden car for the Vimotum Hydrocarbon Company of Chicago. The car used an unwieldy two-cycle gasoline engine mounted on the car floor connected to one truck through a complex set of belts and pulleys. It was not successful and no others were built, although traction companies continually expressed an interest in self-propelled cars as a means of eliminating the expense of costly overhead wires.

Almost as soon as operations resumed in 1898, it became apparent that the Jewett, Ohio, location was somewhat of a liability. Orders continued to flood in but the company found that the number of cars it could produce was severely limited by a lack of skilled workers. The small rural town just was not a place that could attract them. The company even considered building a hotel to be used as a boarding house to help alleviate the shortage of adequate housing. In fact, talk about the firm's relocation had begun within a few months of reopening, and several other Ohio towns were mentioned as possible sites. Although the car company repeatedly denied that it would move, in December 1899, the Cadiz Republican reported that "the car shops are making preparations to move to Newark, Ohio." The dream of the residents of Jewett, Ohio, was about to die.


The Move to Newark

The location of Newark, Ohio, near the geographic center of the state assured the city of commercial success. Indeed, in 1825, New York's governor DeWitt Clinton traveled to the city to participate in the groundbreaking for the Ohio and Erie Canal, a waterway that would connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River, adding to the town's prosperity. It wasn't long before some of the first railroads in the state reached Newark, and by the end of the nineteenth century the city was a bustling center of commerce hosting several breweries, flour mills, and lumberyards; an electric-power-generating plant; a telephone system; and even a streetcar line. Its largest employer, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, had extensive engine-repair and car-repair facilities located on the east side of town. Also calling Newark home were a foundry and stove factory, a bridge works, and the A. H. Heisey & Company, makers of world-famous crystal. What some regard as the first interurban line in the country, the Newark & Granville Street Railway, had been constructed by Reinhardt Scheidler, a local industrialist and manufacturer of traction steam engines.

Ever on the lookout for new job-creating industries to lure to town, the Newark Board of Trade (predecessor to today's Chamber of Commerce) was meeting with some success. Upon learning that the Jewett Car Company of Jewett, Ohio, was receptive to relocating to larger facilities and had been talking to other Ohio cities, a committee of board representatives called on the company in January 1899 and began negotiations that would result in the ultimate move to Newark. The board did not want to lose this plum.

The main advantage over the other locations that were interested in the car shop was that the city already had a large, experienced, skilled workforce, and like Jewett, Ohio, was located at the junction of two busy railroads, the Baltimore & Ohio and the same Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad that passed through Jewett. Also, William S. Wright, one of the principal Jewett owners, was already familiar with Newark as he had owned and operated the Newark-to-Granville interurban line for a short time. Most important, there was sufficient wealth in the community to provide the necessary financial incentive for the company to move there.

Negotiations between the Jewett Car Company and the Newark Board of Trade went on for most of 1899, but by December the decision to relocate to Newark had been reached. Several sites in Newark were considered for the new car shop, but ultimately the former Wyeth-Davis Company facility on South Williams Street was selected. It sat on ten acres adjacent to the railroad and had been engaged in the manufacture of sleighs and oil wagons, so it was well suited to the woodworking required to build a street or interurban car and had plenty of room for expansion. The Board of Trade proposed that it acquire the old wagon works and offer it to the Jewett Car Company free and clear along with a cash bonus of $8,000, to be paid after the company had relocated and had employed 125 men. The proposal was accepted.


Excerpted from From Small Town to Downtown by Lawrence A. Brough, James H. Graebner. Copyright © 2004 Lawrence A. Brough and James H. Graebner. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table of Contents:

1. The Jewett Connection
2. The Move to Newark
3. The Boom Begins
4. The Boom Continues
5. Wright Leadership
6. Car Building
7. Suicides, Fires, and Attempted Murder
8. The Beginning of the End
9. The Survivors
10. Photo Album
Appendix: Jewett Production Information

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