Cobourg's Railway Car Manufacturer by Andrew Merrilees

This very prolific builder commenced manufacturing railway cars in 1866 when the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway, which passed his plant, placed an order for 12 wooden dump cars.

crossen-1880Mr. James Crossen was then the owner of a small foundry business in Cobourg, variously known as the Ontario Foundry, or Helm Foundry. The foundry was able to produce the castings for the metal parts of the cars, and the rest of the construction involved the use of lumber and timber, of which there was a plentiful supply in the Cobourg district at the time.

The times were propitious for the start of a large Canadian car-building enterprise, because conversion of the track gauge on roads such as the Grand Trunk and Great Western created a demand for large quantites of new rolling stock.

James Crossen filled a large part of this demand very creditably, and his works quickly became the largest railway car producer in Canada.

The founder of this enterprise, Mr. James Crossen, as born at Comber, County Down, Ireland, on March 9, 1826. In the year 1842 his father came to America with his wife and nine children and settled on a farm in western New York state, near Batavia

In the year 1843, James Crossen crossed Lake Ontario to Cobourg and started a foundry. His business in fitting up grist mills took him far and wide through the country back of Cobourg, then known as the Newcastle District. His business expanded and in 1866 he began the construction of ore and freight cars for the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway (more). From the building of the simpler forms of cars, the business developed into a complete establishment for the construction of railway cars of all kinds, including freight, passenger and sleeping cars.

crossen houseBuilt around 1871, this is a view today (March 2006) of the former residence of James Crossen at 465 George Street. The plant, which employed as many as 600 people, was located west of the house. Note that the house faces south, away from the railway line.His first passenger cars were built in 1877 and were favourably received, resulting in many large repeat orders. Among the first customers for Crossen-built passenger cars were the Grand Trunk and Intercolonial Railways, both of which had already given Mr. Crossen large freight car orders. Then, in the 1880s, the Canadian Pacific also became a very large Crossen customer for both passenger and freight cars. It was to remain so until its Hochelaga Shops at Montreal had been equipped to produce most of the railway's own cars.

The first Crossen-built sleeping cars were the CHAUDIERE and VANCOUVER for the Canadian Pacific in 1885, and its first dining cars were the BUCKINGHAM, CLAREMONT and ST. JAMES, built in 1886 -- also for the Canadian Pacific. The first four parlour observation cars ever owned in Canada (that is to say, cars equipped with an open observation platform for use in revenue passenger service) were built by Crossen in 1906 for the Intercolonial Railway. There were of course, many business cars equipped with open observation platforms in this country before that date.

Whilst over its career the Crossen company built a fair number of sleeping, dining and parlour cars, the bulk of the work of this type was performed at this period for Canadian railways by firms in the United States, such as Pullman and Barney & Smith. Crossen products were in the main, not fancy, but good, workmanlike, high-production, and more or less standardized products built to good wood car design, and competitively priced.

Nearly every Canadian railway at the turn of the century had some Crossen products. The Intercolonial was always a good customer because it was owned by the Dominion Government and would therefore give preference to Canadian car builders, of which Crossen was largest at that time.

Crossen products also figured largely in the equipment roster of the Canadian Northern, which grew from a small line into a 9,500-mile system in the early years of the century. In 1910 Crossen built six parlour cars for the Canadian Northern which were true archetypes of the wooden, arch-window parlour car at its highest development.

Crossen's production of electric cars was very small, and only two or three small orders are known.

crossen street carAbove is a Crossen street-car built for the Toronto Transit Commisssion on its Harbord line (Cobourg Archives) Mr. Crossen's elder son, William James Crossen, was associated with him in this work from the mid-eighties on, and his younger son, Frederick John Crossen, was fitting himself to enter the same work.

It was during his return from visiting his son Fred, then studying engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, that James Crossen was taken ill. He had reached Montreal from Boston and was stopping at the home of his friend Robert Cowans. Here he died on December 9, 1890 at the age of 65.

The Toronto "Globe", at the time of Mr. Crossen's funeral in Cobourg, had this to say of the Crossen car-building enterprise: "Nearly every railroad in Canada, large and small, has drawn some of its rolling stock from Cobourg; from the coal hoppers used at Lethbridge, N.W.T. and Springhill, Nova Scotia, to the transcontinental trains running from Atlantic to Pacific.

"The finest products of these works may be seen in the electrically-lighted train on the Canada Atlantic, running from Ottawa to Boston; the C.P.R. colonist cars; the first class and sleepers of the Intercolonial and C.P.R.; the lately-finished vestibule trains of the C.P.R. and the model officials' or private cars of the Governor General and Minister of Railways at Ottawa.

"The work upon these cars; their convenience and perfect running, and the beauty and elegance of their finish have never been excelled in America -- but of these facts the travelling public are themselves quite well aware.

"Travellers have been familiar with the inscription on their handsomely-built cars, "James Crossen, Manufacturer, Cobourg, Ont." Into every one of these magnificent productions the life and thought of one of Canada's best manufacturers has been wrought."

Mr. Crossen was a Methodist in religion, and very active in the work of that denomination. The business was incorporated after his death as the Crossen Car Manufacturing Co. of Cobourg Ltd., with William James Crossen as President and General Manager, and Frederick John Crossen as Secretary. Fredrick J. Crossen died of appendicitis on March 14, 1896 at the age of 26.

The business was thereafter carried on by the elder son of the founder, until the end of the wooden car building era. Its last cars were constructed in 1915 and were a group of seven colonist cars and five baggage cars for the Canadian Northern. The firm then went into voluntary liquidation.

The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly, the time had arrived when the plant either had to be converted to steel car production at great expense immediately, or die. The day of the all-wood car was at an end. Secondly, the Canadian Pacific, for years a faithful Crossen customer, had for some years been building practically all its own passenger and freight cars. This fact cut the available market about in half.

Mr. W.J. Crossen therefore wound up the company and retired, full of wealth and full of years, dying in Cobourg in the mid-1920s (see footnote for more). It is believed that most of the buildings of the plant now form part of the plant occupied until about 1960 by Dominion Wheel & Foundries Limited.

A most diligent search has failed to reveal any trace of the records of the Crossen Car Manufacturing Company, or builder's photos of its products. It was a company never much given to advertising, except on the bulkheads and side-sheathing of its thousands of products, which it produced over 50 of the best years of the great railway boom era in Canada.


Footnote: According to Ted Rafuse, Wm Crossen did not actually die in Cobourg. He died Sunday, January 15, 1927, in Toronto in the house of Sir Donald Mann which he was renting at the time. Mann, along with William Mackenzie, were the principals of the Canadian Northern Railway.

See also Ted Rafuse article on Crossen.

For More Information —

Rafuse, Ted. Wooden Cars on Steel Rails; A History of the Crossen Car Companies, Cobourg, Ontario. Port Hope, ON: Steampower Publishing, 2004.
This is a recent book, produced from extensive research. Its 166 pages include 125 b/w photos, 51 equipment diagrams, car rosters and full references.


This article reproduced (with permission) from an article by Historian Andrew Merrilees.

Originally on a Resource site about Canadian Freight cars. That site is now operated by Ian Cranstone.