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A History of 110 Years of Canadian Railway Car Building

by Andrew Merrilees

This page contains an unpublished Andrew Merrilees manuscript written in 1963, which can be found as part of the Merrilees collection at the National Archives of Canada and at the Archives of Ontario. To date this effort has languished within these collections, aside from a handful of copies made by assorted freight car enthusiasts. Although many changes have occurred in the Canadian railway industry since 1963, this unpublished Andrew Merrilees manuscript does provide a good overview of the railway car builders up to that date.

As this was an unpublished manuscript, it isn't surprising that I have received some reports about this effort being incomplete or incorrect in various ways. As a result I have decided to incorporate whatever corrections that I have been made aware of immediately following what Merrilees had to say on the various builders.


The Canadian Railway Car Builders

The Early Small Firms

The Large Firms

Electric Car Builders

Gasoline Motor Car Builders

The Recent Firms

Railway-Owned Car Building Shops in Canada


About the Author

Return to Canadian freight cars page


Railway historians have always tended to overlook the railway car building industry and a definitive history of its operations in Canada has never been written.

I have now undertaken to supply this lack, in the hope that it will be of interest to students of railway rolling stock, and those interested in Canadian manufacturing and industrial progress generally.

I have another good reason too. I like railway cars, and have been concerned with them almost all my business life. Preoccupation with their technical side in our day-to-day operations has not prevented me from being interested in them also in an overall sense, to the point where researches into their background and history have become for me a source of much pleasure.

Thus it was that the idea of my writing a history of all Canadian car builders was conceived, and I present it here herewith in the hope that it may be regarded as a useful contribution to the literature of the railway industry and of the supply trades which serve it.

Andrew Merrilees
Andrew Merrilees Ltd. and Merrilees Equipment Limited
Dealers in Rails, Track Supplies, Locomotives, Freight Cars for Industrial Railways

May 28, 1963

189 Old Weston Road,
Toronto 9, Ontario

The Canadian Railway Car Builders

The story of railway car building in Canada begins in the pre-Confederation years of the last century.

At that time, the principal raw material used in car construction was wood, and the country's first car builders were people experienced in the working of that material.

Quite a few carriage builders gravitated naturally into the business of car building, and grew with it as the railways of the country progressed. In other cases, small foundry companies who were able to produce the metal castings necessary in car construction work, became builders of railway cars, hiring skilled woodworkers for the part of the construction.

The typical Canadian car plant of the last century was a small industry, usually dominated by one man, who fused in one enterprise the skills of the foundryman and woodworker. The plant location was frequently in an area where lumber and timber were plentiful and therefore reasonably priced, and as such locations were in some cases far removed from large cities, the community life in these centres was sometimes feudal in aspect.

Labourers worked from dawn to dusk, with no pay for morning waiting time in the dark months of winter when it was impossible to see in the unlighted cavernous shops. Heat was often prohibited due to fire hazard.

In the period of free trade, or reciprocity with the United States, these infant industries operated with no tariff protection, with the consequence that small, undercapitalized industries sometimes failed, and work had to be taken at ruinous prices in competition with much better equipped, high-production U.S. car plants.

In producing railway cars, volume production methods are essential in reducing unit cost, and many Canadian shops which lacked diversity worked many years before becoming able to introduce proper tools to permit the production of cars in the proper volume.

Occasionally, a car plant would be reduced by fire, which in view of the large amount of dry lumber and shavings lying about in the work area, usually resulted in the total loss of production facilities and the partially finished cars.

Sometimes, in an effort at diversification to achieve better stability, the firm engaged in subsidiary activities such as general millwork, building construction and the like, with varying success. Passenger car building shops of the Victorian era were more skilled than most in producing what may be described as "gimorackery" — the elaborate millwork with which most buildings at that time were adorned.

"Old Country" workmen predominated in the shops, and their work was excellent due to their fine journeyman training in England, Scotland and elsewhere. The period was one of large scale migrations from Europe, and one class of workman which the car shops were always especially anxious to recruit were the skilled woodworkers of the Scharzwald — the Black Forest region of southern Germany, with whom the production of Victorian "bric-a-brac" had reached the stage of absolute genius.

The Pullman Company shops at Detroit and Chicago, as well as Canadian passenger car builders used teams of these Schwarzwalders on carving woodwork for passenger car interiors. Their speed was amazing, but standardizations on designs was impossible, due to the highly individualistic temperament of each man. As a consequence, each car had a different interior, and was more interesting as a result.

Exterior painting and lettering practices were at this period quite as complicated as the woodwork, and it was usual for passenger equipment to be weeks in the paint shop as lettering, shading and striping were applied; then coat after coat of varnish. Each shop had a man known as "the artist," who usually came to work in a top hat and regarded himself as a cut above his fellows, who ruled the paint shop and carried out his highly individualistic designs there.

Labour was cheap, and despite all this ornamentation, it was possible to order excellent cars for what seems today very little money. A 30-ton box car could at this time be had for $400; flat cars for about $300 and coaches for between $1,750 and $2,500.

Labour-management relations in small Canadian car shop communities often bordered on the patriarchal. The owner-manager usually lived in a "gingerbread" house complete with cupola not far removed from the car building plant. The office was a place where green-visored clerks worked on high stools behind elaborate bookkeeping desks, whilst in behind, the manager's office loomed with its vast expanse of flowered glass.

Promptly at 12 noon, the bewhiskered owner would personally open the steam whistle valve beside his desk; the case of his large pocket watch on gold chain open in his hand, and then the men in the shops would "down tools" to the roar of the big steam whistle on the plant power house. Promptly at one o'clock the great man would be back at the whistle valve for the same ritual. Seldom since have shop workers had the same type of personalized service from top management.

This way of life in Canadian small towns now of course, belongs to another day, but might well be recorded here as part of our folklore.

By the turn of the century some fortunes had been made in railway car building, and a few very estimable establishments were in the business. Railway cars were by then in even greater demand as the railway mileage in the country continued to climb.

A feeling of optimism was everywhere evident, and plant expansion went on apace. In every case at this period it was fully justified, and rich rewards resulted. There seemed at this period to be no end to the money which the railway builders were willing to pour at the supply trade.

Both track mileage constructed and railway cars ordered reached their zeniths in 1913 when such unprecedented numbers of cars were ordered that even the recently expanded shops of the old firms, and those of several recently-established new firms could not supply all the demand. Thousands of cars were ordered in the United States despite a high customs duty then in effect.

That year represented the "high water mark" of the railway industry in Canada, and probably in all North America. Never before or since was the railway as an institution more powerful and respected, and never since has it had the same monopoly of transportation.

A period of slow attrition then set in which gathered momentum after the First World War, and reached previously undreamed-of proportions in the depression of the thirties.

The period around 1913 was doubly rewarding for the car builders because, not only were our railways in a vast period of expansion, but the steel freight car and steel-underframe passenger car were displacing wooden cars, and every railway was converting as fast as possible.

By about 1920 the old familiar wooden cars with their truss rods and sagged and hogged frames were getting scarce, and by ten years later they were almost gone. Some very old car builders passed out at this time because for various reasons they did not wish to spend the considerable sums necessary to convert their plants from wood to steel car production in order to continue to retain their share of the market.

Another adverse factor was the policy of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which by this time represented about half of the available market, to build more and more of their cars in their own shops. This practice has lessened considerably in recent years, but at one stage frequently upset car builders' estimates of future available business.

The depression of the 1930s was very hard on the railway car building industry, and dividends were in some cases passed for years in a row. In certain cases no cars were built for months or years on end, and then only in very small quantities, despite vastly reduced prices.

The Second World War brought things fairly well back to normal, but by that time our railways were in the throes of a large economy wave. Cars were still being bought, but a much longer and harder look was given to each Authorization for Expenditure. This is still the case.

The last sizeable expenditure on passenger equipment took place in 1954, when a large number of such cars were built for both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific at a total cost of many millions. It is extremely doubtful if we shall see the like of this again, as since that time, railway passenger car services in Canada entered into a stage of rapid constriction which seems likely to continue.

Whilst freight car orders are still being placed with fair regularity, the old 1,000 boxcar orders of yesteryear are now far between, and a Sales Department man would be a hero indeed if he were to succeed in obtaining one.

Some measure of relief has been afforded from time to time by obtaining export orders from foreign countries. This requires salesmanship of a high order by men with a resourcefulness seldom found, but its results have been very beneficial to Canadian industry. In evidence of this I submit the following recap of foreign orders obtained over the period 1915-1961 by one large Canadian car builder (the Canadian Car & Foundry Co.).

South Africa10,635 cars
India 5,950
Belgium 3,900
France 3,000
Russia 2,500
Turkey 450
Jamaica 247
Trinidad 244
Nigeria 200
British Guiana 127
Rhodesia 106
Brazil 102
Belgian Congo 60
Mozambique 60
Portuguese East Africa 30
U.S. Army 41
TOTAL27,652 cars

The above is not inclusive of Newfoundland, which has since become our tenth province, and averages 610 cars per year over the 46-year period, which includes a great many pretty lean years. These figures have never been published before, and may cause some people who are pessimistic about the future of this industry to take heart, if not also to take up their phones to call for trans-oceanic air reservations.

At the present time the car building industries of Canada are protected by a 22-1/2% tariff. Their costs have risen so high that even a flat car costs the railroads today between $8,000 and $12,000 depending on whether or not it is produced on a volume order. Canadian-built and designed cars have a good name wherever they go in the United States, and this fact reflects well on both the builders and the generally-high state of our maintenance given our cars which are in interline service.

At the time of writing (April 1963) we have just seen the disappearance of one or two big names in the industry. Just as quickly however, one or two new names have sprung up to fill the gaps. Thus it may be said that at this writing the car-building capacity of Canada is more than adequate to cover anticipated demands.

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