Reminisce: Decade of the Lima Car Works

In the summer of 1889 optimism about Lima’s future flowed as freely as the oil discovered four years earlier on the banks of the Ottawa River and the city, which would win renown for producing steam locomotives, seemed in the eyes of some on the verge of becoming a manufacturer of the rail cars those locomotives hauled.

“The unparalleled growth of Lima within the last decade (the city’s population more than doubled to about 16,000 during the 1880s) has been and continues to be the marvel of visitors and even of its own citizens,” the Allen County Democrat declared July 5, 1889. “Under the mighty stimulus of oil and gas, manufactories have gathered at this important center of a number of the great railroad lines of the country …”

Among the industrial success stories that had gathered in Lima, the newspaper wrote, was the car works, which manufactured cabooses as well as railroad freight and tank cars.

“There is a prospect that the Car Works here will shortly enter upon a boom; and that it will be of permanent advantage to this city,” the Lima News enthused August 17, 1889. “There is no reason why this should not be the case; for men who are competent to judge have declared that, for their size, the car works here are the best equipped in the country. With orders on hand to keep them running for a time they can turn out such work as will be an advertisement wherever the cars run; and this should bring an increase of trade which will not only require the constant running of the present plant, but also an enlargement thereof!”

It didn’t happen, and the company, which was always on shaky financial ground, disappeared in 1891 after surviving a decade of financial crises as well as a major fire.

The Lima Car Works was formed in February 1881. “Lima is still reaching out further,” the Lima Democratic Times wrote February 5, 1881. “On last Tuesday the Lima Car Works company with a capital stock of $100,000 was incorporated in the Secretary of State’s office at Columbus … This combined with the other enterprises which our city now has on foot and in progress, will soon give our city a population double that which she has now.”

Author Eric Hirsimaki in his 1986 book “Lima: The History” wrote that the car works founders included attorney George Irwin, S.A. Baxter, president of the First National Bank, and Calvin S. Brice, Irwin’s law partner. “Brice was also active in the affairs of the L.E.&W. (Lake Erie & Western Railroad) and probably was responsible for this car-building venture,” Hirsimaki noted. “He had recently helped secure the railroad’s repair shops for Lima and was one of its leading promoters.”

Brice, according to the author, apparently hoped to duplicate the success of the Lafayette Car Works, of Lafayette, Indiana, which had found success in the early 1880s building rail cars for the L.E.&W. and other railroads.

Brice and Baxter, he wrote, were the new firm’s two largest shareholders; however, not all the company’s stock was sold. “This meant Lima Car’s survival would be harder to ensure and that it would have to prosper from the beginning.”

Construction of the Lima Car Works began in the summer of 1881. “A large force of men are now engaged in getting ready to put in the foundations for these buildings,” the Democratic Times reported August 27, 1881.

By the end of the year, the car works, which was located off South Main Street opposite the L.E.&W. shops, was nearing completion. “The buildings are eight in number and are built in the most improved and substantial manner. They are all frame buildings except the engine and boiler rooms which are made of brick,” the Democratic Times reported December 3, 1881. “A large force of men are now engaged in the different shops, putting up hangers, shafting, belting, etc., and making ready to begin operation as soon as possible after reception of the engine and boilers.”

In late January 1882, the work of building rail cars began. “Initially 100 men were hired, although it was hoped that 500 men would soon be on the payroll,” Hirsimaki wrote. “Under normal conditions, the shop averaged six freight cars a day.” About 1,000 cars were built that year.

Despite this apparent favorable start, Lima Car’s financial frailty was quickly demonstrated. When Brice and associates’ railroad empire collapsed in 1884, the company was doomed. “From the present state of affairs, it looks as though the enterprising city of Lima is about to lose her Car Works,” the News wrote January 17, 1885.That same month it was attached by a U.S. Marshal for various debt and, on May 13, 1885, was sold at Sheriff’s sale for $42,500.

A week after the Sheriff’s sale, the Ohio Car & Manufacturing Company was formed to succeed the Lima Car Works. “Most of the people behind this new venture were also former stockholders in the Lima Car Works,” Hirsimaki noted. “They included Calvin S. Brice and several men associated with the Lafayette Car Works.”

The plant, however, did not resume operations until the summer of 1887 after which, according to Hirsimaki, “it limped along as a marginal operation until June 1888” when it was heavily damaged by fire.

“The car works being at the extreme end of the water works line, made it very hard to get much of a stream on the fire, and as but one hydrant was all that was in range there was but one stream of water playing on the fire most of the time. The entire building with all its contents was burned and all that remains of one branch (the foundry building) of one of Lima’s hives of industry is now merely a pile of ashes and broken castings,” the News reported June 19, 1888.

Brice and Baxter, who had obtained control of the Lafayette operation, acquired the Lima plant in July 1888 and consolidated the Indiana and Lima operations under the banner of the Lafayette Car works, with the headquarters remaining in Indiana.

By 1891, it became obvious two plants were not needed and, during the summer of 1891, it was reported the Indiana plant would be closed with all operations consolidated in Lima. By the end of the year, however, it became apparent the opposite was true, and the News urged someone, anyone, to step in. “No man in Lima is so obtuse as not to be able to see the value of a plant that costs less than one hundred thousand dollars and pays out yearly nearly one-third of one million dollars for labor alone, and $45,000 annually for timber to surrounding mills,” the newspaper wrote.

In February 1892, the Lima Machine Works, which had been looking to expand out of its East Market Street site, purchased the car works for $61,000. Later that year, the Lima Machine Works became the Lima Locomotive and Machine Company and eventually the Lima Locomotive Works. It continued to build railroad cars for several years. Most of the old car works buildings were destroyed in a fire in September 1892.




This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].