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Apr 02

A Look Back with the County Executive: History of ACF

Posted on April 2, 2018 at 9:49 AM by County Executive

Since the 19th century, manufacturing companies have shaped St. Charles County’s economy. At the turn of the 20th century, American Car and Foundry Company (ACF) of New Jersey came to our community and quickly grew to be one of the area’s largest employers. Known for producing railroad cars and military equipment, ACF played a huge role in our regional, state and national history. 

Years before ACF came to the area, North Missouri Railroad was one of the major employers in St. Charles during the 1860s. After a dispute with the city over where to build the railroad-bridge, the company moved its maintenance plant from St. Charles to Moberly in the fall of 1867. The loss was devastating to the local economy and a Citizen’s Association to start a new business venture was established under the leadership of Mayor John Mittelberger. At $100 per share, local residents and farmers purchased almost 1,200 shares of stock in the St. Charles Manufacturing Company, which manufactured railroad cars. With radical Republicans still in control in Jefferson City, public opinion and the law favored tax breaks to encourage economic development. The St. Charles City Council released the company from municipal taxes for 35 years, and the grounds formerly occupied by the North Missouri Railroad shops were chosen as the site for production. The first contract for 50 cars was received from the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in 1874, and the car company began to construct the bridge that the county built over Dardenne Creek in 1875.1

The late 1870s had been difficult years for railroad car manufacturing since railroads could not pay cash because of the economic depression that ensued after the Panic of 1873. Instead, they gave notes to the car manufacturing company that had to be sold to a bank in order to maintain working capital. Stockholders received no dividends, and the value of the St. Charles Manufacturing Company stock plummeted. At that point, Henry Denker, a local merchant and vice president of the company, rescued the business until it began to prosper again in 1879, when T. C. Salveter was hired to run the shop. In his first year on the job, the company’s stock went from 5 to 25 cents a share. The company reorganized and changed its name to the St. Charles Car Company in 1881 and, under Salveter’s leadership, expanded its facilities and workforce. Nine years later, the Cosmos-Monitor reflected, “Mr. Salveter, during his residence in St. Charles as a manager and as a citizen, has gained the respect and confidence of all, and, as far as one on the outside can judge, he has contributed largely to the success of the shops. He brought it up from an insignificant affair to its present large proportions.”2

The American Car and Foundry Company of New Jersey purchased the St. Charles Car Company in 1899. The company continued to thrive and grow, but decision making and control shifted to the east. Old buildings were torn down and the present brick structures were built, as the company began constructing steel railroad cars to be sold around the world. With a payroll of over $1 million dollars annually, ACF extended over almost half of the city and employed 1,800 men by 1906.3 This was three times as many workers as the next largest employer in town. ACF reported yearly earnings of $10,310,871 in 1917. As elsewhere, professional managers now replaced entrepreneurs. James Lawler, who started working at the car shops in 1879 as a blacksmith at $2 a day, had been appointed foreman of the blacksmith shop, and later superintendent of the entire works. He had been appointed district manager in 1899, and the Cosmos-Monitor wrote, “Under his control the local plant has grown to be one of the best equipped plants of that great corporation.”4 Upon his death in 1922, his son, J.W. Lawler, became district manager of the plant.  

The industrial expansion accelerated with American entry into the World War. The Wilson administration established a War Industries Board to impose control over those industries considered vital to the war effort, including American Car and Foundry.  The Cosmos-Monitor reported in the summer of 1918, “Mr. Lawler says the company is doing quite a lot of war work in St. Charles which he is not at liberty to discuss, but we can tell the people that the car shops are doing their share of the war work and straining every point to get the work out.”The war-related orders allowed ACF to erect “a machine shop equal to any other kind in the United States, equipment for modern work of any kind.”6 The ACF plant in St. Charles produced more than 2,500 escort wagons and numerous parts for artillery vehicles during the war. By the summer of 1918, the Cosmos-Monitor reported, “One of the great disadvantages here is the scarcity of men to do the work. We hear it rumored that some of the St. Charles boys who have been inducted into the army for special war work are liable to be sent back to St. Charles to do war work in the shops here.”7      

After the fall of France in June 1940, Congress passed a defense appropriation larger than the entire cost of World War I. As a result, the country not only surpassed 1929 levels of production in 1941, but exceeded those levels by 30 percent. Work began on the Weldon Spring ordnance plant in January 1941. The first Stuart M-3 light tank manufactured at the ACF plant took a test run on the streets of St. Charles in June 1941, while 12 more were on the assembly line. The Banner-News reported, “Now that working forces at the car shops and in the TNT plant area are being increased daily, the unemployment problem here has nearly disappeared.”8  

In March 1941, only two men showed up for the first meeting to organize the workers at ACF. After many other meetings, in June 1941, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified Local 2409 of the Steelworkers of America, also a CIO affiliate, as exclusive bargaining agent for the employees at the car shops. By that time, approximately 85 percent of the workers had voluntarily joined the union at ACF, where they were working on 30 new railroad coaches, as well as a government defense contract for 1,000 tanks. Clem Buergess was elected president of the local, which negotiated the first contract in June 1941. Laborers were paid at the rate of 35 cents per hour, with a five cent increase shortly thereafter, while more skilled workers were paid between 60 cents and $1 per hour. 

The first order given to American Car and Foundry was for 329 light tanks, each with 2,800 different parts, not counting the engine, and each weighing twelve tons. All totaled, American factories turned out 102,000 tanks, 17.2 percent of which were built by ACF plants, 1,800 of which were built at the plant in St. Charles. When construction of light tanks slowed in February 1943, many ACF workers moved to Curtis-Wright and built airplanes. The ACF plant stayed busy converting 32 railroad coaches to hospital cars until July 1944, when it was announced the plant would build 100 new hospital cars. Two months later, the company announced plans to build two saw-tooth buildings along Second Street, doubling its passenger car manufacturing capacity.9 

ACF continued to be the major employer in St. Charles County. The facility expanded and prospered under the leadership of J.W. Lawler, who retired in 1948. The following year, ACF observed a half-century of railroad car building in St. Charles, but the company was “too busy to stop for any fanfare.” With some of the most skilled craftsmen in the world, the St. Charles plant turned out 95 percent of the private railroad coaches built in the country. In some cases, carpentry skills had been handed down from fathers to sons for three generations. Laborers at the car shops were making $1.19 per hour, while skilled workers averaged $1.92 per hour by 1951. Workers gained pension benefits through collective bargaining after the plant was unionized in 1941, and 25 retired workers were receiving pension benefits by 1951. At a dinner celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Local 2409, the Banner-News reported that Roy Jablonsky, district manager for ACF in St. Charles, stated, “the tolerance of the employees, combined with the company’s desire to do its utmost to aid the working man, has brought about the successful relationship enjoyed since the union was organized.” With six freight and two passenger trains a day passing through St. Charles County on the MKT Railroad alone, the railroad industry was healthy in the early 1950s. When the ACF plant started building the fuselage section of the B-47 bomber for Boeing Aircraft, new orders insured work well into 1955, and guaranteed diversity of production. The company's payroll was $250,000 a week in February 1954.                   

Union members returned to work on Oct. 24, 1956, after a seven-week strike by 400 members of Steelworker’s Local 2409 at St. Charles. It was the first authorized strike in the history of relations between ACF and the United Steelworkers. While the company’s earnings remained high throughout 1957, by the next year the plant was operating with a skeleton crew, and the company had to deny persistent rumors that the plant would be sold to an aircraft company. Most ACF employees had sought employment elsewhere, with many already employed by McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis County. The Cosmos-Monitor blamed the reduction in workers on labor-management difficulty at the St. Charles plant. A better explanation was that the railroads business was declining as the airline industry grew. The 1959 closing of the ACF Plant in St. Charles was due primarily to the decline in passenger traffic on all railroads in the U.S. The same year ACF stopped production in St. Charles, the MKT ran its last passenger train through St. Charles County. St. Charles became the headquarters for the Amcar division, responsible for marketing and research, in 1963.     

1 Breslow, Small Town, 137; J.C. Holmes, “Early History.”  The Board of Managers of the Citizen’s Association was comprised of William W. Edwards, president, John Calhoun, Joseph Alexander, Dr. John Henry Stumberg, Henry Denker, Benjamin Edmmons, Theodore H Charles Hafer and Henry Bloebaum in 1873.  Campbell, Gazetteer of Missouri, 490.
2 Cosmos-Monitor, February 19, 1890.
3 Licht, Industrializing America, 116, 131, 133-134; Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town,” 91-92; Cosmos- Monitor, April 19,1950.
4 Poindexter, “A Right Smart Little Town, 91-92. 
5 Cosmos-Monitor, July 25, 1918.
6 Breslow, Small Town, 138.
7 Cosmos-Monitor, July 25, 1918
8 Banner-News, June 5 and 12, 1941.
9 Burnett, St. Louis at War, 100-102; Cosmos-Monitor, July 12 and September 27, 1944.