The Electric Pullman: A History of the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company

The Electric Pullman: A History of the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company

by Lawrence A. Brough


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253007902
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/21/2013
Series: Railroads Past and Present Series
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 1,055,647
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Lawrence A. Brough is a retired metallurgical engineer. He is a member of the Society of Automotive Historians and has written several articles on automotive history. He is author (with James H. Graebner) of From Small Town to Downtown: A History of the Jewett Car Company, 1893-1919 (IUP, 2004) and Autos on the Water.

Read an Excerpt

The Electric Pullman

A History of the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company

By Lawrence A. Brough

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Lawrence A. Brough
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00799-5



The year was 1901. William McKinley, the favorite son of Niles, Ohio, began his second term in office as president of the United States. National unemployment was at 4 percent, and Marconi demonstrated his wireless by sending messages through the air from England to Newfoundland. The electric railway era was well along and, like the steam railroads before, electric lines were springing up all over the country in an attempt to connect nearly every town and hamlet. Did this look like an opportunity to invest in America's future? It did to a group of Niles businessmen, and on May 3, 1901, they incorporated the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company, which, according to its Articles of Incorporation, intended to "manufacture and deal in all kinds of street and railway cars, motors, steam engines, water tanks, and acid tanks and for manufacturing and dealing in railway supplies and appliances of all kinds." The company was capitalized at $200,000.

The inclusion of the manufacture of water and acid tanks was no doubt influenced by the fact that Niles was located in what was then the heart of industrial America and was home to steel mills, rolling mills, and plants that produced glass, pottery, and firebrick—businesses that would require such equipment—and these tanks were made out of wood, as would be the trolley car bodies. Among the investors were F. J. Roller, superintendent of schools; B. F. Pew, a prominent Niles grocer; G. B. Robbins, director of the Dollar Savings Bank (whose brother, Frank Robbins, became President of Niles); and W. C. Allison, president of the Allison and Company planing mill, whose property would soon become the site of the Niles car factory.

By June 1901, the planing mill had been removed and construction of the Niles factory was well under way. It occupied four and a half acres and was to be a substantial facility consisting of two erecting shops each about 130 × 200 feet, and each capable of holding over forty cars; a paint shop for twenty-five cars; and a two-story mill of 130 × 200 feet, with the second floor holding cabinet, upholstering, varnish, and headlining operations connected by an electric elevator. The buildings also included a dry kiln, a blacksmith shop, a machine shop, and a two-story office with drafting on the second floor. The facilities were equipped with the latest electrically operated machinery and a transfer table capable of holding an 80-foot car to move cars between buildings.

The buildings were so arranged that lumber entered the mill directly from the dry kiln and then passed directly to the erecting shop. From there, the car, in the rough, passed into the paint shop. Great care was taken in arranging the shops so material would be handled only once in each department. It was estimated that the completed works would cost seventy-five thousand dollars and would employ about three hundred men. The new endeavor so excited city officials that they immediately authorized the construction of fifty new homes to house the employees.

The incorporators wisely hired men with car-building experience to commence operations. A. W. Scholl, assistant superintendent, had eleven years with the Jackson & Sharp car company and eleven with the Pullman Company. Fred McBrien, mill foreman, had four years with the Pullman and American Car companies. A. L. Jacobs, superintendent, and George Pratt, general superintendent of the works and contracting agent, both had a number of years at car-building factories. Their contacts in the industry would be invaluable.

The company made it very clear that it was going to build a substantial product and supply the very best equipment with the latest and newest designs, and that it would depart from the antiquated horse-car type of construction and substitute the most modern construction to withstand severe service. By September, it was announced that orders had been received for twenty-four 18-foot cars complete with motors and trucks (undoubtedly single-truck city cars), and for rebuilds of sixteen other cars. It was anticipated that the factory would be ready for operation by mid-November, but that proved to be optimistic. However, by early the following year, things were humming. In mid-February, the plant was working full time and had orders in hand from six more traction lines, for a total of nearly one hundred cars. So confident was the firm that it immediately began building for stock a number of ten-and twelve-bench open cars for early spring delivery.

The main office of the company was located in the two-story portion of the building, in the northwest corner facing Erie Street, with the machine shop, dry lumber storage, and lumber drying kiln in the adjacent part of the building. The boiler room was in the southwest corner. The westernmost large building was the mill and was used for bench work, gluing, and so on, while the center building was an erection hall. The easternmost building was the paint shop. A transfer table moved the cars sideways between the erection hall and the paint shop.

The shop was completely sprinkled and the mill equipped with a dust collector that delivered the dust to the boilers, where it was burned and the steam used to dry lumber in the kiln located in the room next to the boiler.



The Niles Car & Manufacturing Company entered a business that was already crowded with well-established car builders, many of which had evolved from carriage-, horse-, and cable-car building. There were three other large car builders in Ohio alone, which was not surprising because there were soon to be more miles of electric railways in Ohio than in any other state. Therefore, Niles had to offer something the others did not. The company management decided at the outset to adopt robust steam railroad car construction, and nothing epitomized that better than the products of the Pullman Car Company. By the early twentieth century the name Pullman usually meant a sleeping car owned and staffed by the Pullman Company but operated by the railroad. Pullman also built other types of cars for the steam railroads as well as cars for electric railways. Niles succeeded in building interurbans that were so highly regarded that many traction lines began to refer to them as "Electric Pullmans." No higher praise could have been bestowed on the cars.

The early Niles products were almost entirely wood in construction, the standard at the time for other car builders as well. Cabinetmaking was an art that flourished at that time and was well-adapted to car building, as the cars were elaborately decorated inside with inlaid woods. The process was similar to building a house: first the framework was built, then the car was finished inside and out. In addition to fancy woods, pinstriping was used extensively inside and out to impress the rider with a sense of luxury.

Cars were identified as having been built by Niles by a sign over the door at one end, usually the front of the car leading to the motorman's cab. There could be no doubt where the car came from.

In Niles's own words as published in the Street Railway Journal, the company's designs "consist of all styles and sizes of electric railway cars, heavy interurban, medium size suburban and city service cars of closed, open and convertible types, but the company's specialty is large cars for fast interurban service and electric parlor cars for limited extra fare service." The company offered the following types of cars:


"This company follows the standard method of steam railroad coach construction wherever practical in its interurban cars, it having been proven in actual service that the lighter cars which are the outgrowth of street cars are not sufficiently strong or steady riding for high speed service on interurban lines." The company believed "that interurban passengers should receive equal comforts and smooth noiseless transportation as on steam railways." It was Niles's building to "steam railroad standards" that was to set it apart from the other car builders.


"It is becoming recognized among interurban railway managers that a certain portion of their patrons are not only willing but anxious to pay extra for extra service and that an individual parlor car chair in a richly finished and carpeted car with lavatory, observation windows, etc. is an inducement to electric railway traffic as well as a paying investment and advertisement for the road." Maybe the patron could not afford the parlor seat but was comforted by knowing it was available.


Niles open cars "are usually built with 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 transverse benches or seats full width of car with a folding step or running board full length of car on each side and with sliding guards on post grab handles so either or both sides of car can be closed as desired. A transverse bulkhead with drop sash at each end of car separates two end seats which have stationary backs, all other seats have reversible backs. The ten bench car is the standard size for single trucks, while the longer cars are carried on double trucks." While open cars might have been more comfortable during the heat of summer, they must have subjected the passengers to all the dust kicked up by the car when in motion.


"An open platform for hauling rough freight and construction material such as ties, rails, gravel, poles, coal and other supplies, but with cabs for housing electric and brake controlling apparatus and supporting trolley stand, has proven a very important part of the auxiliary equipment of electric railways. These cars are usually equipped with powerful motors and two or more styles of drawbar for use as switching locomotives, snow plows, and sometimes fitted with hinged sides and jib cranes. They are carried on heavy diamond frame motor trucks designed for strength rather than easy riding." Every railroad needed at least one but they were often made in company shops out of older cars.


"As this company makes a specialty of interurban cars and each order for passenger cars is usually accompanied by an order for one or two express cars, it has designs for a large variety of cars of this class. The same outside dimensions as passenger cars of the same road are considered advisable, resulting in more uniform equipment. Two large doors on each side and a door in each end for loading poles, scenery, rails, etc. form the usual plan. These cars are framed and built in the general manner as express and baggage cars of steam railroads." These were the real moneymakers for the railroad.


"Usually 20 ft. body for single truck or 30 ft. body for double trucks, vestibuled at each end with step and folding door at each corner, longitudinal seats and spring rattan with backs against sides of car, quartered oak interior finish, bronze trimmings, spring curtains, gongs and bells, monitor deck roof with separable hoods. If single end cars, a vestibule at front end and Detroit style platform (an unusually large rear platform) at rear end are preferable. Niles radial drawbars, ratchet brake handles, veneer ceilings, best double strength car glass, trolley plant on roof, etc. are standard. Cross seats with reversible backs if specified."

One of the advantages of the interurban railway was its ability to deliver the passenger and freight right to the center of town. As a result, nearly all interurban railways had to use the tracks of the town's own city railway, if one existed, and it usually did. The standard width of a steam railroad passenger car was 10 feet, but interurban cars were limited in width by track conditions in cities through which they ran. Where city railways were built to accommodate small cars, the track for passing sidings or even areas where double track was laid was often not spaced sufficiently far apart to permit the use of wider cars. Consequently, many interurban cars were only eight feet in width. This loss of two feet made transverse seats narrower and less comfortable. So initially wherever they could, traction managers tended toward wider cars, which were also heavier and rode more smoothly.

Most electric railways were built to operate on direct current (DC), which required the installation of substations at intervals along the road to provide sufficient power to run the cars. The use of alternating current (AC) was desirable because it eliminated substations and was much more economical to install, but it led to operating problems, and many lines that began with AC eventually converted to DC. Railways that began with AC received cars from Niles with heavy sheet copper roofs grounded by copper cables to the car bolsters so as to short-circuit the current in case the heavily charged trolley wires should come in contact with the roof, thus protecting the car and passenger. The copper roof was also considered to be practically indestructible and the best kind of protection against the weather.



No company records have survived the more than one hundred years since the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company began producing railway cars, so newspapers, trade journals, and traction line histories have been relied upon to determine what cars were built, and when. Often orders would be placed and reported in the trade journals but a few months later the order would be reduced or even canceled. And the date the cars were delivered was frequently not the same year in which they were ordered or built. Nevertheless the information reported here will give the reader a fairly good idea of the activity at the plant.

Niles was best known for its big interurban cars, and those were what the company preferred to concentrate on. However, the company was not about to turn down orders for smaller city cars that would keep the plant busy, and the Niles catalog included illustrations of several small single-truck car designs for city use. It was decided not to embark on the construction of motors or trucks (Baldwin trucks were preferred), but Niles would supply those components with the car bodies to give the buyer a ready-to-run product, if so desired. But in the interest of economy, traction lines frequently purchased only car bodies, to which they added trucks, motors, and other finishing materials in their own shops to complete the car, saving the markup (usually 10 percent above cost) that Niles would have applied to those components.

The interurban era was characterized by boom-and-bust cycles, and fortunately Niles commenced operations at the beginning of one of the early bursts of activity. Business was very good for the first couple of years. In February 1902, the Street Railway Review reported, "The Niles Car & Manufacturing Company of Niles, Ohio now has its plant in operation and announces that it is prepared to bid upon and furnish all classes of rolling stock for electric and steam railways.... Among the orders the company now has in hand are the following: Aurora Elgin & Chicago RR, 30 motor cars; Western Ohio Railway, 20 motor cars and four work cars; Wisconsin Construction Co., 6; Alliance (O.) Electric Ry., 6; Toledo Railways and Light Co., 20; Detroit United Railway, 45; Louisville Anchorage & Pewee Valley Electric Railway, 15 ten- and twelve-bench open cars, for early spring delivery."

By the end of its first year of operation, Niles had produced or rebuilt well over one hundred cars. Although 1903 was a recession year in the United States, Niles orders carried it through to a record of nearly 150 cars. In March the company reported having recently shipped ten 20-foot car bodies to Cuba's Havana Electric Railway Company, with an order for twenty-five more. These car bodies were to be equipped with trucks and motors in Cuba and were unusual due to the fact that the Havana system used dual overhead wires, requiring the cars to have two trolley poles.

The Des Moines City Railway was soon to receive twenty 28-foot vestibuled cars, and the United Power Company of East Liverpool another four. Three more car bodies went to the Pennsylvania & Mahoning Valley Railway, and interurban cars were also shipped to the Western Ohio Railway. Unfortunately, details of these cars have faded into obscurity.

Steam railroads were not overlooked. Shipped from Niles to the Seaboard Air Line Railway of Richmond, Virginia, were ten 62-foot passenger coaches, fully vestibuled, running on six-wheel trucks. The coaches were finished in quartered oak, inlaid, with full empire decks for the run between New Jersey and Florida. Sent to the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad (an adjunct of the Pennsylvania Railroad) were twelve six-wheel-trucked 78-foot passenger coaches and four combination coaches for use between Jersey City and St. Louis. These cars had Hale & Kilburn walkover plush upholstered seats in the coaches and horsehide in the combinations. All of these early cars made by Niles were wood, however, the railroads were soon converting all their passenger equipment to steel cars, largely for safety reasons, so it is likely that these railroad cars did not last very long in revenue service. The interurban railroads were a bit slower to adopt steel cars, but they finally did; the delay was due mostly to their being strapped financially and already having a roster sufficient to handle the traffic. Niles did build some steel cars in its later years.

Production in 1904 plummeted as a result of a national financial crisis that occurred the previous year. The panic caught many overextended traction syndicates, and money to finance railway building was very difficult to obtain. Many properties that had begun construction on a promise found themselves in big trouble and lines that had been proposed were put on hold, many permanently. This affected Niles's business to a marked degree, but the company directors were confident of a later rebound and went ahead with an expansion to be ready for the next wave of construction. Capitalization was increased to $500,000 and a new storage building and machine shop were built on the north side of the factory.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 The Curtain Rises 3

2 The Catalog 7

3 The Cars Roll Out 15

4 The Slow Decline 31

5 A Look Back 48

6 Observations 70

7 The Survivors 84

Epilogue 89

Appendix 91

References 105

Index 109

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