Jefferson County

Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company
By Matt Page

Mt. Vernon Township High School

Mt. Vernon used to be home to the Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company,
better known locally as the "car shops." They contributed to the Mt. Vernon
area economically and socially for more than sixty years. 

The Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company produced boxcars like
those pictured here.


The car shops were opened in Mt. Vernon in August 1890. The car shops were brought to Mt. Vernon by David O. Settlemire from Litchfield, Illinois. It is not known why they were moved, but it was rumored that the losing candidate in a mayoral race, David O. Settlemire, said, "If Litchfield doesn't need me for mayor, they don't need my shops and elevator." The new Mt. Vernon plant was equipped to build freight cars of all kinds for the railroads. Operations began on a small scale and employed about four hundred men when the new plant began. 

Settlemire was the first president of the shops. He was born in 1827 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Settlemire had had many jobs, beginning as a cabinetmaker's apprentice at age seventeen. Afterward Settlemire became a grain dealer. He realized that rail transportation was vital for transporting his product as well as many other products. This realization led him to become wealthy and led him to become president of the Litchfield car shops. Settlemire never lived in Mt. Vernon, even though he located his factory there. He died in 1908 in Litchfield. 

After Settlemire died, W. C. Arthurs became president of the shops. Arthurs was Settlemire's son-in-law. He had experience as a plowboy, grocery store clerk, and drug store clerk. Before he became president he served as the first secretary and treasurer of the shops. He and his wife lived in Mt. Vernon in an elegant twenty-three-room home at 800 North Street. W. C. Arthurs died at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 16, 1928. After Arthurs's death Ralph Weber became the president until 1935 when David Arthurs took over. David was W. C.'s adopted son. 

W. C. Arthurs had believed that keeping his men happy was the best way to keep production up. His beliefs contributed to the community socially and economically. He started a baseball team named the "Car Builders." It played against many teams in Southern Illinois and was considered to be one of the best teams outside the professional ranks. One of the most famous people that played for the baseball team was Ray Blades. He was later a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and helped them to win the World Series while with the team. It is very likely that the years spent playing on the car-shop's team led him to the Cardinals. 

The Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company sponsored a band that presented regular concerts to the community and played for parades and other events. They were considered to be a fine band. It was called the "Carco Band" but also nicknamed the "Kilties" because the band wore Scottish dress. 

The car-shop's train whistle might be one of the best-remembered things by the community. It sounded loudly New Year's eve to celebrate the New Year. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L and N) also contributed two switch engines to join along with nine other engines, to produce the loud whistle. The whistle was also used to call attention to a fire in the community. 

The car shops also affected the community's economy. The Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company provided the largest payroll of any industrial company for the city at the time. It averaged $100,000 every two weeks; $2.6 million was distributed in the Mt. Vernon area in a year. In addition to providing the community with a good payroll, large sums of money were poured into local taxes for Mt. Vernon schools as well as other worthy causes. 

The car shops of Mt. Vernon produced one of the best products in the nation. Initial production was eleven to twelve cars daily. The first car was made of wood. Most of the cars were made for the L and N Railroad. 

The product was so well received that the company not only started doing business with other railroads in the United States but with foreign countries. Cars were built for the Canadian National Railroad and for a company in Mexico. The Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company was at the height of its business when the Great Depression descended. From 1930 to 1936 only one hundred cars were manufactured by the company. 

World War II, however, provided a great boom for the company. The Mt. Vernon car shops were called upon to provide a sizeable number of bombs for the war in Europe. 

The end of World War II, however, brought the end of an era. In 1944 the company was sold to H. K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh who dismantled the shops. The site was sold to a group of local businessmen for $250,000 who in turn paid $90,000 to raze the buildings. Unemployment skyrocketed with a 16 percent rate in the Mt. Vernon area. A few of the original buildings stand today, including the Precision National Corporation and the office complex that served as the Jefferson Memorial Hospital for several years. 

The closing of the railroad era also ended the company that provided jobs, money, and social activities for many Mt. Vernonites. There is probably not an adult in the Mt. Vernon area who lived during the car shop's years who does not remember hearing the whistle blow on New Year's Eve or watching the car-builder's baseball team win another game.—[From Harry L. Bates, History of Jefferson County, Illinois: 1810-1962; Mt. Vernon Daily Register, Mt. Vernon, Illinois, June 29, 1981; Thomas A. Puckett, Mt. Vernon, Illinois — A Pictorial History.] 

This article was featured in ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1994  Illinois History A Magazine for Young People 1994. The link for this article is no longer online however, the magazine is and can be found at: Illinois History A Magazine for Young People

Biography of W. C. Arthurs



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