National Steel Car Limited

Location: Kenilworth Avenue, north of Burlington Street, Hamilton, Ontario

An aerial view of the National Steel Car Corporation plant on Kenilworth Avenue, north of Burlington Street, Hamilton, Ontario (click for a closer look)On June 12, 1912, a group of prominent Hamilton, Ontario, citizens founded the Imperial Car Company to meet the supply needs of the booming railway industry. The citizens included Sir John Gibson (Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and first president of the Cataract Power Company); Cyrus Birge and Charles Wilcox (directors of the Steel Company of Canada); and William Southam (publisher of the Hamilton Spectator). Expertise was provided by Basil Magor, the former president of Magor Car Company of Passaic, New Jersey. The next month, the name of the Imperial Car Company was changed to the National Steel Car Company ("Steel Car"), and construction began on property supplied by Sir Henry Pellatt on the northeast corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Burlington Street in Hamilton. The company's headquarters and a sales office were set up in Montreal, Quebec. Steel Car already had over 1,500 different orders lined up even before the sod had been turned. A land shot of the National Steel Car Company plant, circa 1913 (click for a closer look)

Construction of the factory began that month, and in only three months (a record for construction at that time) production began. The first wood and steel freight car rolled off the line on December 12, 1912, and was shipped in January of the next year. In June, 1914, the company added an extension to the passenger car department, and 500 more men to the payroll, bringing the total number of employees to almost 1,500.

During World War I, Steel Car manufactured steel bodies for trucks that were to be used in the war effort. When the war ended, the company continued to produce the frames for peacetime use, receiving many orders for its "National" brand motor trucks.

In 1919, despite high profits, Steel Car went bankrupt due to mismanagement and falsification of accounts. The company was completely reorganized. Robert J. Magor's extensive knowledge of the car-building businesses earned him the presidency of the company, and the name was altered slightly to National Steel Car Corporation Limited. The headquarters were moved from Montreal to the Hamilton location on Kenilworth Avenue.

The company expanded its operations and product line in the mid-1920s. In 1926, it began to manufacture steel chassis for auto cars, and bodies for motor busses. The Hamilton Street Railway ordered many of its bus frames from Steel Car. The worker population ranged from between 1,000 to 2,000 employees, depending on the number of contracts that needed to be filled. In 1929, the company moved toward the production of steel car frames, rather than the all-wood models it had been making previously. Between the years 1931 and 1935, the plant received almost no orders, and was virtually shut down. It took over the Canadian manufacturing and distribution rights of the LaPlante-Choate Manufacturing Company of Iowa, making snow plows, and was also affiliated with the William Hamilton Company of Peterborough, Ontario, making products for the pulp and paper and mining industries.

When World War II (WWII) began in 1939, the company turned its efforts to the manufacture of shells, gun parts, and army truck bodies. Steel Car had, in fact, begun producing shells three years before, for the British War Office; an entire building had been erected on the Hamilton lot to handle the production. This plant was the largest single producer of shells in the British Empire and North America. The building was closed when the war ended. Also immediately preceding WWII, Steel Car had acquired an aircraft manufacturing plant in Malton, Ontario, which became the company's Aircraft Division. It was later taken over by the Canadian Government to become Victory Aircraft Limited, and Steel Car returned to manufacturing railway equipment. Workers stand in front of a National Steel Car manufactured train, circa 1940 (click for a closer look)

To ensure a continuing supply of lumber for its operations, the company acquired Valdes Lumber Company Limited in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 1944. Two years later, a shortage of other raw materials forced the company to lay off 75% of its workforce, reducing the payroll from 1,500 to 450 workers. Eventually, things started to look up: in January of 1948 the company received a $12 million order from the Canadian National Railways (C.N.R.) for improvements in its passenger cars. Later that same year, C.N.R. awarded Steel Car another contract for 50 new baggage cars, and the next year the company produced box cars for the Toronto, Hamilton, and Buffalo Railway (T.H.B.).

While business was good, employee relations at the National Steel Car Corporation were strained. Since 1940, a group of about 200 employees at Steel Car known as the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (S.W.O.C.) had been demanding the reinstatement of its terminated president, as well as official union recognition. The employees went on strike in April of that year, and the Canadian government took control of the company because the dispute was tying up the production of war materials. The strike only lasted a week, until the union's president was reinstated. However, three months later the employees struck again, this time to force the company to recognize S.W.O.C. or a similar organization as an official bargaining agent. Again, the strike was short, but the dispute continued. It was only on May 1, 1948, when certification was granted to the United Steelworkers of America (U.S.W.A.), Local 2352, that "the longest labour dispute in Canadian history" was resolved. (Hamilton News, March 2, 1948) The new agreement provided the workers with, among other things, a minimum hourly wage and six paid statutory holidays.

On May 31 of the next year, 1,600 employees walked out again in the third strike of the company's history. This dispute lasted for 48 days, and gained employees another settlement regarding wages, holidays, and recall rights. The last point was an important one for the employees; because of the specialized nature of the industry, workers would often be laid off when the number of orders received by the company was low, and the union wanted assurance that when the number of orders increased, the former employees would be the first to be offered their jobs back.

In 1950, Steel Car sold the Valdes Lumber Company for a profit. Over the next few years, Steel Car grew into the fifth largest industry in Hamilton, and the second largest in Canada dedicated to the production of railway cars and equipment. In 1955, the employee population increased to 1,200. The company began to streamline its engineering practices to increase efficiency, decrease production costs, and maintain a steady employment base. It created the Special Products Division for the fabrication of aluminum and steel products to ensure that the plant would not be entirely idle when railway equipment orders were not forthcoming. The next year, the company acquired majority control of Trailmobile Canada of Toronto (a subsidiary of Pullman Incorporated), which manufactured truck-trailers. In November, 1960, Steel Car diversified into the manufacture of steel washer and dryer bodies and medicine cabinets, and cast iron pipes. It also began to focus on the production of freight cars rather than passenger cars. Picketers outside of Dofasco's Ottawa Street plant are reflected in the sunglasses of a National Steel Car worker (February, 1978) (click for a closer look)

Dominion Foundries and Steel (Dofasco), a non-union company, acquired National Steel Car in 1962, and U.S.W.A. reorganized the employees in 1967. Over the next four years, employment at the plant increased and decreased as orders came in. In 1973, over 1,000 production workers went on strike for four months, and gained a wage increase of between 85 and 95 cents per hour. Another strike occurred on January 12, 1978. The workers picketed at the National Steel Car plant, as well as the main plant of Dofasco, the parent operation. The employees returned to work on May 30 with an increase in wages, a cost-of-living payment, and full premium coverage of their Ontario Health Insurance Plans.

The next decade was difficult for the company and its employees. The decline in the demand for railway cars forced layoffs that hit at least 1,500 employees in the early 1980s. C.N.R. began to manufacture its own railway cars, and Steel Car was getting smaller shares of other contracts. By April, 1983, only about 170 workers were active in the Kenilworth Avenue plant, as compared to 1,500 only three years before. In April, 1987, Hamilton hosted a demonstration by various railway equipment manufacturers intended to bring federal attention to the crisis facing the railcar industry.

By the 1990s, business was starting to pick up, relatively. Steel Car was awarded a share of two large contracts with Canadian General Transit, and the American market for Canadian-built freight cars was growing. The payroll crept back up to about 800 employees. In March, 1994, Dofasco sold National Steel Car to a numbered Canadian investment firm (2970422 Canada Incorporated) which operated Steel Car under the name National Steel Car Limited. By 1999, the company's workforce totalled over 2,000 employees.

The railcar industry in the year 2000 is nowhere near as prosperous as it was in the middle of the century. However, although the industry has suffered as a result of the popularity of highway transport, there are still benefits to be had. In the past year, C.N.R. has been ordering flat cars for an Expressway project to carry highway truck trailers by rail between Montreal and Toronto. National Steel Car continues to explore its options so that it can remain a viable Hamilton industry.



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