World War I Artifacts and Memories: St. Charles Car Company

9, April 2015
Soldiers training with artillery vehicles Soldiers training with artillery vehicles like those made by American Car and Foundry. Carl Michel Collection, Missouri History Museum.

Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, industries across the United States recognized opportunity and began to shift their focus to building war materials for the belligerent nations. The St. Louis region was no exception, and from 1914 to 1918 an industrial boom ensued. One of the many companies in the area to benefit from government contracts was the St. Charles Car Company.

Founded in 1873, the St. Charles Car Company produced passenger railcars and streetcars sold nationwide. In 1899 the company, along with 12 others, merged to form the American Car and Foundry Company.  With factories in St. Charles, Detroit, Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Berwick, Pennsylvania, among others, the American Car and Foundry was tasked with building a variety of artillery support vehicles, artillery shells, and submarine chasers. Among the vehicles to be produced were gun carriages, caissons, battery wagons, and escort wagons.

Image depicting an army escort wagon used in WWIExample of an army escort wagon, like those made American Car and Foundry’s St. Charles plant. Carl Michel Collection, Missouri History Museum.

The American Car and Foundry Company’s St. Charles plant was tasked with the building of 50,000 army escort wagons. Because the St. Charles plant was set up to build passenger railcars, which required substantial woodworking equipment, they were the ideal plant to produce the wooden four-mule escort wagon. In addition to the escort wagons, the St. Charles plant produced all of the woodwork and chests for the artillery vehicles produced by the American Car and Foundry Company, including: 2,535 chests for spare breech mechanisms, 2,535 chests for spare sights, 2,223 chests for spare cleaning materials, 2,183 chests for small supplies, 2,207 chests for miscellaneous spare parts, 9,992 tompions for gun muzzles, 2,207 grindstone frames, 20,8000 packing stripes, 41,794 pieces of wood lining for forge limber chests, and 61,972 pieces of wood lining for store limber chests. The company was also contracted to produce cast-iron stoves used at army camps in the United States and France, of which 2,208 were produced at the St. Charles plant.

Cover of American Car and Foundry Company in KhakiCover of The American Car and Foundry Company in Khaki, produced by the company in 1919. Missouri History Museum Library.

Following the war, the American Car and Foundry Company produced a publication titled The American Car and Foundry Company in Khaki that provided many of the numbers above and served as the source of the photographs shown. The American Car and Foundry Company performed admirably, providing war materials to the Allied nations during the war, and as a testament to their reliability and efficiency, they were called on once again in World War II. During World War II the company produced a variety of war materials, with the St. Charles plant producing over 1,800 M3A1 Stuart tanks.

The St. Charles plant continued to operate through the 1940s and 1950s, producing steel passenger railcars. But with declining orders the American Car and Foundry Company decided to close the plant in 1961. Today much of the St. Charles plant has been torn down; however, a portion of its World War II facility has been renovated and operates today as the Foundry Art Centre.

sketches and photos of artillery caissons and boxes made by a foundry during WWIImages and sketches from inside the book depict (left) artillery caissons and limbers and the types of boxes (right) made by the company. Missouri History Museum Library.

If you are interested in discovering more items in the Museum’s library collection you can browse online here. To read more about the American Car and Foundry Company visit the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center or visit the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

—Patrick Allie, World War I Curator