John Stephenson Company Streetcars

New York would not be the city it is today without the comprehensive public transportation infrastructure developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the major players of this development was the John Stephenson Company, a streetcar manufacturer that not only outfitted the byways of New York, but supplied cities all over the world with public transportation vehicles.

Background

John Stephenson was born in Ireland on July 4, 1809 and immigrated with his parents to the United States two years later. As a teenager he was an apprentice to the coachbuilder Andrew Wade of 347 Broome Street. During his apprenticeship Stephenson built carriages for Abraham Bower, who had introduced the horse-drawn vehicle known as the omnibus to the streets of New York in 1827. Omnibuses were essentially public stagecoaches running along a specified route with a fixed fee for passengers. Upon completion of the apprenticeship in 1831, Stephenson opened his own carriage shop at 667 Broadway. The shop burned to the ground a year later, but Stephenson was not deterred – he reopened for business at 264 Elizabeth Street. By 1836 his business was successful enough to warrant a move to a bigger place –  Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) between 132nd and 134th Streets. The print below shows the Harlem factory and features one of Stephenson’s standout designs, known as an x-frame or diamond car for the shapes cut by the latticework on the side of the vehicle. The design served more than just an aesthetic purpose: the truss supported the body of the car between two wheeled chassis.

Photolithograph by J. H. Bufford & Co. John Stephenson, Manufacturer of Rail Road Cars, Omnibusses, Post Coaches and Carriages of Every Description. ca. 1837. Museum of the City of New York. 45.293.1

Photolithograph by J. H. Bufford & Co. John Stephenson, Manufacturer of Rail Road Cars, Omnibusses, Post Coaches and Carriages of Every Description. ca. 1837. Museum of the City of New York. 45.293.1

John Stephenson’s business suffered a setback with the onset of the Panic of 1837 and was forced to close in 1842. But the tenacious Stephenson worked hard to pay off his debts and reopened again in 1843, at 47 East 27th Street, where the company would remain until 1898.

The photographs below were taken for the John Stephenson Company and donated to the Museum in 1944 by Mrs. Harry A. Thompson, great niece of John Stephenson and daughter of John A. Tackaberry, Vice President of the John Stephenson Company. The photographs are divided into the following unbound  photograph albums: Omnibuses, Fare-box Cars, Aisle Cars, Summer Cars, Closed Cars, Double-decker Cars, Special Cars, Electric Cars, Cable Cars, and Factory. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken at the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street.

Factory

Stephenson built his factory on 27th Street between Madison and Fourth Avenues, opposite the New York & Harlem Railroad depot at Fourth Avenue and 26th Street. By the time these pictures were taken, the depot had been demolished for the construction of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown  photographer. Factory John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.453

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.453

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory John Stephenson Company Factory at 47 East 27th Street. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.454

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [John Stephenson Company Factory at 47 East 27th Street.] 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.454

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, cabinet shop. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.485

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, cabinet shop.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.485

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, making a streetcar roof. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.480

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, making a streetcar roof.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.480

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, streetcar near completion. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.481

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, streetcar near completion.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.481

Omnibuses

Omnibuses eliminated the need to hire transportation and became so popular that by 1852, over 120,000 passengers utilized them daily in New York.[1]

In 1856, Stephenson manufactured 300 omnibuses for use in New York and other cities around the world [2]. Below is an omnibus destined for Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses Dunedin City & Suburbs streetcar. ca. 1865. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.2

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses [Dunedin City & Suburbs streetcar.] ca. 1865. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.2

The Pride of the Nation must have been one of the largest omnibuses ever constructed. Stephenson built the vehicle in 1875 and presented it at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Omnibuses The Pride of the Nation streetcar. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.13

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Omnibuses [The Pride of the Nation streetcar.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.13

Look at how many horses were needed to pull the Pride of the Nation, shown below in Madison Square. The fate of the vehicle is unknown; the omnibus was last seen in 1918 when it departed for a cross-country tour, pulled behind a gasoline tractor.

Photograph taken by J. H. Beal for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses The Pride of the Nation streetcar in Madison Square. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.14

Photograph taken by J. H. Beal for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses [The Pride of the Nation streetcar in Madison Square.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.14

In 1832, John Mason improved on the omnibus by laying special tracks in the cobblestone streets of New York, providing a smoother, safer, and more efficient ride. Thus the market for horsecars, also called streetcars, was born. Stephenson supplied this market with different variations of the streetcar seen below.

Fare-box Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Fare-box Cars Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. Limited No. 30 Hotham & Melbourne streetcar. 1884-1898. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.28

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Fare-box Cars [Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. Limited No. 30 Hotham & Melbourne streetcar.] 1884-1898. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.28

Aisle Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Aisle Cars Irondequoit Park Railroad streetcar, Glen Haven & Irondequoit Bay. 1893-1894. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.94

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Aisle Cars [Irondequoit Park Railroad streetcar, Glen Haven & Irondequoit Bay.] 1893-1894. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.94

Summer Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Summer Cars Bowery Bay Beach streetcar, Steinway via Ravenswood & Astoria. ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.133

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Summer Cars [Bowery Bay Beach streetcar, Steinway via Ravenswood & Astoria.] ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.133

Closed Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Closed Cars Streetcar No. 147, Central Park, North & East Rivers to the Battery. 1860-1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.234

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Closed Cars [Streetcar No. 147, Central Park, North & East Rivers to the Battery.] 1860-1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.234

Double-decker Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Double-decker Cars Empresa de Tramways de Lima No. 4 streetcar with knifeboard seating on upper deck. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.272

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Double-decker Cars [Empresa de Tramways de Lima No. 4 streetcar with knifeboard seating on upper deck.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.272

Special Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars Streetcar for use in China. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.293

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars [Streetcar for use in China.] ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.293

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for first-class passengers with side entrance. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.300

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars [Matamoros – Puebla streetcar for first-class passengers with side entrance.] ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.300

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Special Cars Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for second-class passengers. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.301

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Special Cars [Matamoros – Puebla streetcar for second-class passengers.] ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.301

Horsecars created their own problems, however: the need to feed, groom, and provide shelter for teams of animals; the enormous amounts of animal waste deposited on the streets; and the working limits of the animals themselves.

Cable Cars

Cable cars flourished from roughly 1880 to about 1890. They were an improvement over horsecars, but were rendered obsolete when Frank J. Sprague successfully electrified a street railway system in Virginia in 1888.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Cable Cars Kansas City Railway Co. Nos. 18 and 17 streetcars, Woodland Avenue via 8th & 9th to Union Depot. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.451

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Cable Cars [Kansas City Railway Co. Nos. 18 and 17 streetcars, Woodland Avenue via 8th & 9th to Union Depot.] ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.451

Electric Cars

The photograph below shows a streetcar fitted with a Thomson-Houston motor, passing by Union Square.

Photograph taken by the Pach Brothers for the John Stephenson Company. Electric Cars Madison & 4th Avenue to Post Office, Central Park No. 12 streetcar with Thomson-Houston motor. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.379

Photograph taken by the Pach Brothers for the John Stephenson Company. Electric Cars [Madison & 4th Avenue to Post Office, Central Park No. 12 streetcar with Thomson-Houston motor.] ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.379

The End of an Era

John Stephenson died in 1893. The same year, another financial panic threatened to put the John Stephenson Company out of business. In 1898, the company moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey and shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy. The John Stephenson Company was taken over by another railroad car manufacturer and continued on until 1919, when the plant was sold and the assets were liquidated.

Around the same time, the last horsecar in New York ran its course on July 17, 1917. The New York Times lamented:

Passing through many changes, the line kept its honored place in the municipal railroad world until yesterday morning, when the last of the dirty old cars, with their faithful horses and husky drivers, were withdrawn, never again to reappear. What glory, therefore, that came to this giant and progressive city for maintaining the last horse-drawn car disappeared forever. We are now no more notable in transportation than Chicago or Philadelphia.

Photographer unknown. Last horse-car trip, Bleecker Street. 1917. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.9926

Photographer unknown. [Last horse-car trip, Bleecker Street.] 1917. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.9926

1. Randall Bartlett, The Crisis of America’s Cities (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 71.
2. John H. White, Horsecars, Cable Cars, and Omnibuses (New York: Dover Publications, 1974), 15.

One response to “John Stephenson Company Streetcars

  1. The public transportation system was and largely still is excellent in Chicago. Although that city, like nearly every other, made the mistake of falling for the siren song of Detroit and pulling up the streetcar rails after WWII. Public transport was an essential ingredient in the growth of most major cities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s