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A Brief History Of The Jackson & Sharp Company, Car And Ship Builders, 1863-1950


In April 1863, Job H. Jackson and Jacob F. Sharp formed a rail car manufacturing partnership, Jackson & Sharp, in Wilmington, Delaware. Located at the foot of Eighth Street in Wilmington, Delaware, Jackson & Sharp filled its first order in 1863, ten fruit cars for the PWBR. In 1865 they built passenger cars for the Great Western Railroad in Illinois, moving into the manufacturing of a variety of rail car types: passenger, private, baggage-mail-passenger, and freight. From one hundred employees and facilities for holding six cars, by the late 1880s the company employed roughly one thousand men, with facilities for seventy-five cars. 5

On Jacob F. Sharp’s retirement in 1870, Jackson and some associates established the Jackson & Sharp Company, with five hundred thousand dollars in capital. Jackson served as president. The reorganized Jackson & Sharp Company, also known as the Delaware Car Works, was said to be the largest of its kind in the Americas. It sat on roughly twelve acres, with property on both the Christina and Brandywine waterfronts. Payroll averaged between 7,000 and 10,000 dollars per week by the late 1870s. The car workers, described in one magazine article as a “community of artists,” hailed from a number of crafts and trades. Painters, decorators, upholsterers, and a host of other workers and craftsmen joined designers, carpenters, and smiths in constructing a car. Newcomers to the process in the late 1880s were electricians, providing interior lighting for passenger and private cars. From start to finish, it took two months to build a car. Jackson & Sharp built a variety of rail cars for international markets and also built trolley cars, both horse-drawn and electric.

Jackson & Sharp’s business was international in scope, with customers including King Oscar of Sweden, and Dom Pedro, emperor of Brazil. Palace and parlor cars were a Jackson & Sharp specialty. The plant also manufactured exposition cars—moving billboards for trade shows or state tourism, and cars for transporting theatrical companies. In 1876, Jackson & Sharp was awarded the Centennial Exposition medal for Dom Pedro’s “boudoir and library” car. 6

The company gained a reputation for innovation as well. Jackson & Sharp built the first narrow gauge rail cars in the United States, delivering their first order for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway in August 1871. Peaking in popularity in the 1880s, narrow gauge rails were more economical and well-suited for use in the mountainous western United States. Invented in Wales, narrow gauge railways could be found throughout the British Empire, and in Russia and South America, as well as North America. 7

Jackson & Sharp’s success took place within the economic and social transformations that Wilmington, and the nation as a whole, experienced in the nineteenth century. From an eighteenth century economy based on shipping, milling, shipbuilding and barrel making, with many of the city’s artisans and tradesmen working out of the home, Wilmington’s transformation to an industrial economy was complete by the 1850s. Wilmington’s location between the Brandywine and Christina rivers, near canal and rail lines, close to northern and southern markets, and its history as a milling center drawing skilled workers and providing sources of capital, were integral to this transformation. Among the many industries that flourished in nineteenth century Wilmington, shipbuilding and rail car construction were the city’s chief industries by the 1840s. Ideally situated between the PWBR and the Christina River, by the 1860s the four largest Wilmington firms engaged in one or both of these activities. It was only a matter of time before Jackson & Sharp, the newcomer, tried its hand at shipbuilding as well. 8

In 1875 the company purchased the Christina River Shipyards. Jackson & Sharp specialized in building wooden craft, such as schooners, barges, and steam-powered passenger and freight vessels. The yard performed repairs as well, using a marine railway to lift craft out of the water. By 1880, only two wooden shipyards remained in Wilmington, Jackson & Sharp, and Enoch Moore; other shipyards engaged in the building of iron and steel shipping. The lumberyard contained a variety of woods. Lumber, cut or machined, served a variety of uses including car frames, hulls and planking for ships, and ornamentation. Sawdust vacuumed from this work was recycled for use in the boilers that powered the yard’s machinery. The total value of Jackson & Sharp’s cars and boats manufactured reached one and a half million dollars per year in the late 1880s. 9

The continuation of old ways of work at Jackson & Sharp, such as skilled, diversified labor, also appears in the survival of the apprentice system. Apprenticeship agreements dating from the late nineteenth century spell out the terms under which young apprentices might learn the rudiments of a craft or trade. In March 1871, Henry L. Hainsworth contracted his son John to the Jackson and Sharp Company as an apprentice. John, who turned sixteen that May, was to “learn the trade of Car Building for the period of five years.” If John lasted the five years, he saw his weekly pay increase from two dollars his first year up to seven dollars his fifth year. Any absence, “except legal Holidays,” was considered “lost time,” and his pay would have been deducted accordingly. Satisfactory conduct during the five years would result in a fifty dollar bonus. 10

Labor struggles were not the issue in Wilmington that they were elsewhere in the nineteenth century. Although labor unions emerged in Wilmington in the 1840s, strikes and labor violence were rare. The large percentage of skilled workers and the survival of artisan identity might have worked against attempts at organization. Depressed economic conditions may have played a part as well. Agitation did take place, however, as seen in attempts to shorten the workday. Strikes were more frequent in the 1870s and 1880s, if not successful. During the 1880s, the largest labor organization of the period, the Knights of Labor, became a presence in Wilmington industry. The Knights were not a radical group, preferring arbitration to strikes. Jackson & Sharp employees joined the Knights. Despite this, old ties between worker and employer remained strong. As some workers called for higher wages in March of 1886, Job H. Jackson appealed directly with employees. Claiming that due to competition from companies such as Pullman, wages could not be raised, Jackson managed to avert a walkout. An unsuccessful strike by Wilmington leather workers at that time revealed the weakness of the Knights. 11

Jackson & Sharp’s workers were justifiably concerned about wages. The production of rail cars was closely connected to the state of the American economy. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, Jackson & Sharp employed forty people, down from six hundred, and was planning to close operations in 1875. Business improved by 1880, but workers’ wages did not rise to their former levels. A machinist earning two dollars per day in 1870 earned $1.66 2/3 per day in 1880. Wages would slowly rise over the next twenty years. 12

By 1900, despite the economic difficulties of the 1890s, Jackson & Sharp Company plant property covered 30 acres. The firm employed twelve hundred to fifteen hundred workers, and had branch offices in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and London, England. The company produced 40 different rail car designs. In 1901, Jackson & Sharp workers apparently felt secure enough in their positions to join in a strike for, and win, a nine-hour work day. 13

At the end of the nineteenth century, Wilmington experienced another economic shift. Older local industries declined in the face of mergers and trust formation, lessening demand for products, and pressures of modernization. One by one, established plants were bought out or went out of business. The American Car and Foundry Company (ACF), formed in March 1899 as the result of the merger of thirteen railroad car and equipment companies, took over the Jackson & Sharp Company business in May 1901. It is unclear whether or not this was a matter of choice on Jackson & Sharp’s part. Job H. Jackson died on 23 May 1901, a few weeks after the purchase was made. The Wilmington Morning News reported that “it was the intention of Mr. Jackson to live retired and to enjoy some of the fruits of his labor.” 14 But perhaps in the face of increasing competition from rivals such as the Pullman Company, and with the changing nature of American business, Jackson preferred to bow out with dignity.

In making its arrangements with Jackson & Sharp, ACF leased the plant, equipment and inventory for ten years, with an option to purchase at the end of that period, paying rent of $25,000 per year. In February 1911, ACF exercised its option and purchased the plant for $500,000. Jackson & Sharp focused on export passenger car production after its acquisition by ACF. Under Job H. Jackson’s ownership, the plant had “developed and patented one of the first designs” for “knocked down” cars, which involved shipping the cars in pieces for export. In emphasizing export production, Jackson & Sharp’s other strengths were not neglected. Included among a shipment of cars bound for Spain in the summer of 1901 were a “drawing room coach car” and a dining car built for that nation’s King Alphonso. 15

A Jackson & Sharp catalog from the turn of the century listed the company’s varied products and operations:

Builders of sleeping cars, dining cars, private cars, chair or parlor cars, day cars, baggage and mail cars, street cars for horse or power traction, street sprinkling cars, and freight cars, for any gauge of track.

Manufacturers of architectural wood work and cabinet wood work for buildings.

Shipbuilders, ship joiners and marine railway. 16

The shipyard built grain barges, car floats, lighters, tugs, ferry boats, tow boats, schooners, and dump scows. While the shipyard kept busy, iron and steel shipbuilding quickly eclipsed wood shipbuilding. Jackson & Sharp produced 15,617 tons of shipping in 1906, compared to 48, 671 tons for Pusey & Jones, and 43,016 tons for Harlan & Hollingsworth, local manufacturers of iron and steel shipping. Harlan & Hollingsworth had also been caught up in the wave of corporate consolidation, purchased by the industrial trust United States Shipbuilding in 1902. 17

The First World War returned Wilmington to prosperity as munitions works, ship builders, and foundries went into action. The Jackson & Sharp plant “launched the largest tonnage of wooden boats put out by any American shipyard” in the years of 1914-1915. Due to the demand for ships’ carpenters, carbuilders assumed the task of shipbuilding during the war. Jackson and Sharp was contracted in 1917 to build eight wooden submarine chasers. One hundred men did the job within six months. The rail car shop was taken over for this task. Boat repair at the shipyard took on added importance during the war. Jackson & Sharp also produced a variety of rail cars, acid buckets, and powder trays for the Du Pont powder company’s munitions work. The plant also manufactured tables, benches, and pontoons. 18

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