Pullman Cars Once Built in Elmira
(Ad From American Railway Times, 1853)
(Elmira Telegram, Sunday, December 8, 1907)
Several days ago the Pullman shops at Buffalo were damaged by fire to the extent of a half million dollars loss. Fifteen hundred workmen are out of employment at least temporarily as a consequence. It is rather a discouraging position in which to be placed when most fathers, sons and brothers are working with more than ordinary energy that they may earn sufficient money to make glad the heart of Christmas morn of those whom they love. More disappointing yet is the humor that the big plant will not be erected in Buffalo but that the work will be transferred to Pullman, Ill.
In that event it is likely that the major portion of the Buffalo workmen of the company will be given places at Pullman. It is even suggested that the company will continue a shop in the east but will look for location where taxes and cost of living are less than the Buffalo standard. If that be true perhaps Elmira has a chance to bid for the enterprise.
Elmira was the home of the Pullman shops a generation ago. There are men living here today who worked for the Pullman company here and others are employed for the Erie in the shops at Susquehanna and Hornell. Still others are at Wilmington, Del., where many went when the Pullman shops were closed in this city.
Few who live here are now aware that it was an Elmira man who invented the sleeping car - Eli Wheeler, by name. Next Thursday will be the anniversary of his death on William street. He was a man of refined taste in literature and art. It is an undeniable fact that Captain Wheeler invented, patented and put into use the first practicable sleeping car that was ever run on the railroads of this country.
The principle that he applied is the same one used to this day on all magnificent bed room coaches that are such comforts to travelers. The Pullman palace coach and the Wagner sleeping car are heard of all over the world but the name of the late Captain Eli Wheeler, of Elmira, the man who invented or discovered the idea around which they are built and made them possible is never heard. It is only another instance for the inventor making nothing while some one else reaps the benefits.
There might have been some compensation to Captain Wheeler if he had made money in the enterprise even if his name were not mentioned. Webster Wagner got control of the Wheeler cars on the New York Central road, became a millionaire out of their construction; was sent to the senate of this state, and became a power in financial and political matters. George M. Pullman, who began his life in connection with the cars as a conductor on one of Eli Wheeler's coaches on the Central road also made millions out of the manufacture of sleeping cars, while Captain Wheeler, in all, made out of his invention only $10,000, a paltry pittance in comparison with the rest. The patent granted to Captain Wheeler was dated August 3, 1858.
As early as 1856 the New York Central was experimenting on contrivances to provide for better comforts of passengers during the night time. It is said that about 1856 a man named Woodruff got up a "sleeper" for the Central. It was an awkward affair. Captain Wheeler happened to be in Buffalo and saw the Woodruff got up a "sleeper" for the Central. It was an awkward affair. Captain Wheeler happened to be in Buffalo and saw the Woodruff car which the Central refused to accept, it is said. Wheeler remarked that he had evolved an idea of what a sleeping car should be.
He showed a model of his ideal sleeping car to George Gates, who had been sheriff of Erie county. Gates took the model to Eaton, Gilbert & Co., famous car builders of Troy. Mr. Eaton was highly pleased. Two cars were built and placed in service on the New York Central They were under the control of Webster Wagner who subsequently undertook the job of turning out more of them for the Central, the new invention having met with public approval and patronage.
In 1859, Vice President Headley, of the Erie, took the cars that had been running between Elmira and Canandaigua, the Erie then having that territory, and had Captain Wheeler direct their rebuilding as sleepers. The work was done at the shops at Piermont. The cars were successfully run over the road under the management of Geoge Goff, who had conducted an eating house at Dunkirk. In 1860, Goff sold out his rights as manager to Richard Baker, of Elmira, and Charles Widrig, of Horsesheads. Business increased and they ordered the building of two more cars in the Elmira shops. W.E. Rutter, of this city, was the builder. That was the origin of the Pullman shops of Elmira.
It is related that in 1861, the Erie finding that Baker and Widrig were quite prosperous decided to monopolize the business and refused to permit the Elmirans to continue the running of sleepers over the road. Persons in the Erie formed a sleeping car company of which Erie Superintendent Charles Minot was the head. After making a large profit Minot and his associates sold out to George M. Pullman.
Baker and Widrig sued the Erie for peremptorily ordering them from the road and got small damages. Captain Wheeler went to the companies using his model of cars but he could get little satisfaction. He didn't care much about lawsuits and as he had realized $10,000 from his invention, and had no heirs he remained contented with his books and his works of art at his pleasant home on William street.
Many cars were made in the Elmira Pullman shops and the loss of the closing of the works here about twenty years ago was severely felt. It is probably the company would have gained had it remained in Elmira. The Queen city of the southern tier would have gained too. Perhaps there will be no chance of securing the Pullman shops here again but it is worth trying. If Buffalo is to be deprived of the works because of last Monday's fire I am sure the good people up that way, and of whom there are many former Elmirans, would be pleased to see this city reap the benefit.
It would indeed be repaying the debt of gratitude at least the late George Pullman owes to the late Captain Eli Wheeler, of Elmira, because had not Captain Wheeler at the opportune time invented his sleeping car and had not George M. Pullman secured employment on the car there might now be any Pullman millions. Captain Wheeler, by the way, was not a practical railroader. He and the late Captain Henry C. Spaulding, father-in-law of the Hon. John B. Stanchfield, secured their titles as captains of canal boats.
Captain Spaulding subsequently became a lumber dealer and amassed a fortune. After leaving the canal, Captain Wheeler conducted a foundry on Lake street. His death on December 12, 1882, was due to a stroke of apoplexy. It would be interesting to know what became of his letters of patent on the sleeping car.
(Note: These shops, on Fifth Street, were closed in 1886 and the operation was moved to Wilmington, Delaware).