Putting the Brakes on Bookmarks
Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.
Mr. Lardner would live to eat his words as train passengers traveled more often, farther, and in more safety than one suspects he ever imagined. Part of that safety is due to American Brake Company, a firm that manufactured railroad brakes. ABC was extremely successful. Its brakes were used by railroad firms and locomotive builders all over the country as well as abroad.
Located in St. Louis, MO, it first opened up in 1880. It took pride in its products as can be seen by this description that opened its 1885 catalog, which included automatic freight car brakes, driver and tender brakes, and different variations with additional features. The company also boasted that its products were made with the fewest number of parts possible as well as interchangeable parts, which made maintenance easier and less expensive. (Freight car brakes, for example, cost $15, and transportation to ports and loading fees from St. Louis were free.) By the time the catalog was published ABC brakes could be found on more than 2,000 cars.
WE TAKE PLEASURE in submitting herewith, for the inspection of our friends, a complete descriptive Catalogue of our system of Freight Train Brakes.
Since the inception of our enterprise, some five years ago, we have been making changes and improvements, which experience suggested and demanded, until now we are able to offer our devices perfected, with every part thoroughly tried and tested, and the number thereof, we believe, reduced to the minimum.
All work is made to template so that like parts are interchangeable.
We think it hardly possible to produce a Power Brake for the equipment of an engine and tender; or an Automatic Brake for a freight car, which shall consist of a fewer number of parts than those made by us, and herein described.
The prices at which we offer them are lower than for any heretofore put upon the market, hence we claim superiority in the two important requisites: Simplicity and Cheapness.
Improvements in construction of cars, of motive power, and of permanent way have kept pace with the increased capacity and speed of trains demanded by competition in Freight Traffic, until the weight and speed is trebled and quadrupled beyond that of a few years ago; while the means for control of this immense weight when in motion almost universally remains as before.
The custom of interchange of cars between nearly all the roads of the country, is, in the opinion of most practical railroad men, a bar to the introduction to general use of any of the excellent continuous brakes now operated upon passenger trains. The reasons for that opinion are too numerous and obvious for us to comment upon here.
We assume that an Automatic Freight Train Brake, to be successfully and generally introduced, must be independent and complete in itself upon each car, so that its place in the train shall not be limited; and be free from the objection of “one disabled, all disabled," which lies against brakes requiring connection between cars to operate them. lt should consist of few parts, and be sufficiently strong to stand the treatment which freight cars
It must place the control of the train in the hands of the engineer, without help from the train men, and not require that the crew be instructed specially, as a condition to its operation.
It should be cheap as to first cost and cost of maintenance, and require no special skill to adjust or repair.
We offer to the railroad public such a brake.
American Brake Company was founded in St. Louis, MO, in 1880 as one of the earliest companies in that city to manufacture a new design of freight train brakes (both automatic and tender power ones), a major improvement. They were located in the predominately industrial section in the residential neighborhoods of the Near North Side, along the Mississippi River.
Missouri had, by the 1870s, become home to three rail lines that ran through the industrial segment to other parts of the city. Several decades earlier, rail expansion throughout the state had been pushed, and the city was chosen for the Pacific Railroad’s easternmost terminal. Groundbreaking began in 1851; twenty-three years later, on July 4, 1874 it was formally finished and transit from the Atlanitc to the Pacific was open. St. Louis prospered from the people and industry brought to the city. By 1880, nearly 11,000 St. Louisians were employed by transportation-related industries as the city became the second largest rail hub in the nation and businesses engaged in locomotive-related traffic flocked here.
One of those was ABC founded by S. W. McMunn, D.S. Randolph, D.H. Chapman, Albert Blair, Charles N. Shamaw, N.W. Kitchell, and G. H. Chapman on August 10, 1880. Within three years the company established a two-story brick machine shop on North Second Street where they would stay until 1941.
They marketed their product well, eventually providing them to over 107 national railroad lines, primarily on the east coast. At the National Railroad Exposition of 1883, which took place in Chicago, the company showcased its "automatic brake.” It made such an impact that writer D.H. O’Neale devoted a full page of his exposition coverage in Science to explaining their “automatic brake.” The advantage of ABC’s discontinuous brake lines ensured that brake failure on one car did not result in failure of the entire train—a feature that O’Neale noted made the brake popular on many railroads, including the St. Louis and San Francisco lines. At the exposition, ABC caught the eye of George Westinghouse. He had patented an air brake in 1869 for Westinghouse Westinghouse Air Brake Company in Pennsylvania. Though his company had exhibited its automatic brake at the same exposition, it received less attention so Westinghouse set about to remedy that, eventually acquiring ABC in 1890, though he kept its original name and location.
The building that ABC used for its business in St. Louis made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. The “period of significance” or the reason it is there is because of its contributions to the “broad patterns of our history” between 1901-1941. The summary of the NRHP tells, in part, why:
Three-story red brick industrial building constructed in three phases between 1901-1919. It is composed of two contributing buildings and one noncontributing building It is a good representative example of Romanesque Revival architecture. The original brick building has a stone foundation with partial basement. The north elevation proudly displays intricately carved signage with “901 American Brake Company 1901” in the frieze. A brick and concrete addition was constructed on the south elevation of the building in 1910 and a rear addition was constructed in 1919 adding an additional 24,000 square feet to the industrial facility. The additions maintain a level roofline, rectangular floor plan with less ornate architecture characterized by symmetrically spaced metal industrial windows in each bay, concrete rectangular sills and lintels, and a terra cotta coping. Except for some brick and glass block infill, the boarding up of a few window openings and interior updates, the American Brake Company Building retains the ability to convey a strong industrial presence in the North Broadway industrial area, is in excellent condition, and maintains integrity of workmanship, setting, association, materials, and design.
By 1904, more than 1,500 people were employed at the St. Louis plant, and the company was preparing to participate in the World’s Fair to be held that year in the same city. Anticipating the public and media attention, Westinghouse expanded operations and offices for his company to the St. Louis plant. He used in architectural and construction firm to plan an expansion of the buildings, gaining permission to construct a three-story addition to the property. But due to the panic of 1907, he had, by 1911, lost control of his companies. Nevertheless, many continued to flourish, among them ABC, and in 1919, a third addition was constructed. American Brake Company continued its production for the locomotive business, but with the invention of the automobile it also began production of automatic brakes for cars.
Unfortunately, two factors came together to spell the end for ABC. As cars began to decrease in price and more Americans bought them the interest in train travel began to fall. Second, competition in automobile brakes was much greater. In 1941 the company ceased production and the lovely building was sold to General Iron and Steel Company. Finally, in 1956, AMC was dissolved. In the meantime, Koken Company had bought the facility in 1944 and adapted it for the manufacturing of its barber supply products. Koken maintained the building, renting space to other manufacturing companies through the 1970s.
Today, the building retains its historic character and continues to function as a manufacturing plant yet also retains “excellent integrity of location, setting, workmanship, materials, design, association, and feeling.” It’s a shame, though, that the trains upon which the company was founded and depended have not.
Bookmark specifications: American Brake Company
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,300 bookmarks and approximately the same number of books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.