7 Chapters
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1   The Curtain Rises

Lawrence A. Brough Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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3   The Cars Roll Out

Lawrence A. Brough Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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2   The Catalog

Lawrence A. Brough Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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4   The Slow Decline

Lawrence A. Brough Indiana University Press ePub

After an auspicious start in 1902–1903, the next two years of very low production must have been somewhat disheartening. During the business slump after the 1903 financial crisis, car builders everywhere were hurting and a proposal surfaced in 1905 to combine twenty car builders, including Niles, into one giant car-building syndicate. It came to naught but created a lot of excitement at the time. But looking ahead, the directors apparently had enough confidence that business would improve that they authorized an increase in capitalization and an enlargement of the factory.

The years 1906–1907 were just the opposite of the previous two years and it looked like the traction industry was playing catch-up with the huge volume of orders for new cars. In January of 1908, Niles directors authorized the payment of dividends on both common and preferred stock and predicted fair business for the coming year. Orders, however, fell off sharply, but the firm still managed to deliver nearly eighty cars to willing buyers. During the year, an order was received from California for six cars to be used in the San Diego area on the San Diego Southern Electric Railway, which had just changed its name from the National City and Otay Railroad. The cars cost $6,571.15 each ($3901.29 for the body and $2669.86 for the trucks and electrical equipment). The cars were 45 feet 10 inches long and of the California type peculiar to that state, with a closed center section and open sections on both ends. The center section held twenty-eight seats and the open ends twelve seats each.

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5   A Look Back

Lawrence A. Brough Indiana University Press ePub

While the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company was a good civic booster and even fielded a works baseball team each year, it was not very generous in reporting to the public, or to the industry for that matter, about its financial affairs. Except for advertisements in industry trade journals and announcements of cars orders, very little was published about the company. The Niles Daily News carried articles about annual meetings and occasional car shipments but little else. No company records survived, so what is known about the company has been gleaned from newspapers, trade journals, and published traction line histories to create this account.

There was a plethora of car builders operating at the beginning of the twentieth century, a great many having evolved from the construction of carriages and horse cars, which were generally small and lightweight. But the excitement in the electric railway industry at that time was in building interurbans for long distance, high-speed service that demanded cars more like railroad coaches. There were fewer builders of cars of this type and Ohio was in the middle of all this activity. And like the railroad-building boom of half a century earlier, there was plenty of business to share among suppliers to this frenzy (as in the gold rush of the previous decade, it wasn’t the miners who became wealthy but rather the merchants who sold them the picks and shovels). While Cleveland was already a railroad center, Niles seemed an unlikely place to establish a railroad-car-building concern of any type. But it was in the heart of industrial America at the time and skilled labor was easily available.

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