Sheffield Velocipede Car Co


George S. Sheffield & Company
Sheffield Car Company


(1879 edition, Car-Builders’ Dictionary)

ve-loc-i-pede \ n. : a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary)

The Sheffield Velocipede Car Company had its beginnings about 1877, when George S. Sheffield, a Michigan farmer, invented a three-wheeled railroad hand-car propelled by a combination of hand and foot power used in a push-pull fashion (see illustration above). At about 140 lbs., it was light enough to be swung off the tracks to make way for trains, and made an excellent track inspection car.

In Fairbanks Morse: 100 Years of Engine Technology, C.H. Wendel tells the following story about the origin of Sheffield’s invention. (Take it for whatever it’s worth.)

“George Sheffield lived on a farm about seven miles from Sheffield, Michigan [apparently just a cross-roads town near Three Rivers, as it is not listed in our 1880 atlas of the United States, and the only Sheffield, Michigan, known to the United States Geographic Survey’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) was in Kent County, which at its nearest point is 60 miles north of Three Rivers]. The farm was a short distance from the Michigan Central Railroad. Every morning and every evening, George Sheffield walked the tracks to and from work.

“Sheffield conceived the idea of building a small car which could propel him over the railroad tracks. In the winter of 1877 he built a small three-wheeler for this very purpose. After a few experimental models he developed a model which would embody all the salient features of the F-M No. 1 Velocipede car which was sold for many years.

“The homemade Sheffield velocipede had no right to use the rail tracks, so he made his journey in darkness. One night he was headed home and discovered a broken rail. By procuring a lantern and flagging down a train, he prevented a certain disaster. However, Sheffield’s little velocipede was now made manifest to all. In recognition of his valorous act, the company permitted him to run his car between his farm and Three Rivers. Shortly after, a railway company representative called on Mr. Sheffield, asking him to build the velocipede for their own use.”

Sheffield applied for a patent on his hand-car early in 1879, and received Patent No. 213,254 only two months later (11 March 1879).

Later that same year, a business was established called George S. Sheffield & Company. The “& Company” was Warren Willits, a Three Rivers businessman who witnessed Sheffield’s patent application and was apparently the business end of the partnership [Sheffield’s “office man”].

In December 1880, the company applied for a reissue of Sheffield’s patent with assignment to that company. Warren J. Willits witnessed that application also. This became Patent No. RE 9,571, dated 15 February 1881.

In February 1881, Sheffield and Willits were joined in the business by E.B. Linsley, another Three Rivers businessman, and on 15 June 1882 the business was incorporated as the Sheffield Velocipede Car Company, with [Sheffield?] as president, [Willits?] as vice-president, and E.B. Linsley as secretary/treasurer.

Later that year, the company’s foundry was expanded, and other types of railway maintenance vehicles were added to its catalog.


(1888 edition, Car-Builders’ Dictionary)

On 7 March 1883, application was made for a second reissue of Sheffield’s original patent, this time to the new company. The result was Patent No. RE 10,303, dated 3 April 1883.

Interestingly, during the interim Sheffield acquired two additional patents on “improvements” to his initial design. One of these was Patent No. 260,903, dated 11 July 1882, that added a backward-facing seat and modified the operating lever so two people could operate the vehicle together. The other was Patent No. 269,237, dated 19 December 1882, that modified the rider’s seat to add the up-and-down shift of the rider’s weight to the propulsive force of the operating lever. Likely both of these patents were sold to the company, but neither was reissued so far as we know.

Sheffield’s velocipedes were shipped overseas as well as being used in North America. The Buckinghamshire Railway Center in England has one they claim is a No. 1 (presumably model #1), “built not earlier than 1887, and is believed to be part of a batch purchased by the London & North Eastern Railway.” They have a picture of it in their “virtual stock book.” One source estimates Sheffield built about 4,000 of these cars.

Velocipedes were not all that Sheffield built. As the 1880 advertisement headlining this article illustrates, Sheffield built a number of other small cars and railroad appliances, most geared to railway construction and maintenance.

In early 1888, Sheffield, like most car works of the 19th century, suffered a fire that destroyed much of its works. Unlike most, however, the $22,000 loss was “fully insured.”

Also in 1888, Charles H. Morse,  founder of Fairbanks, Morse & Company bought Warren Willits’ interest in the company. The Sheffield product line was added to the F-M catalog, and F-M became general sales agency for all Sheffield products.

In 1891, George S. Sheffield withdrew from the company, and the next year it was reorganized as the Sheffield Car Company, with Charles H. Morse as president, W.E. Miller as vice-president, and E.B. Linsley as secretary/treasurer.

By 1896, Sheffield was offering its velocipedes with a small gasoline engine. The Ft. Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel for 30 January 1896 contained the following article —

“The first engine ever run by gas and without the use of steam appeared on the Fort Wayne road Friday, and made a trial trip between Alliance and Rochester, says the Pittsburgh Post. The machine was a Sheffield velocipede, manufactured at Three Rivers, Mich., and is propelled by a small gas engine which is placed on one corner of the frame and so geared that a speed of twenty-five miles an hour can be easily developed. C.W. Squire, the agent of the Sheffield company, accompanied by J.E. McFadden, superintendent of bridges, and N.C. Alles, of Alliance, Ohio, rode on the little car for more than thirty miles. It was able to climb all the heavy grades at a fare [sic] rate of speed and the benzine tank which supplies the motive power had to be filled but once on the long trip. With such a car a bridge or track inspector’s work would be a pleasure.”

The North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript for 19 November 1898 had this to say about a “Rapid Railroad Tricycle”  —

“Thomas Casey, roadmaster on the western division of the fitchburg railroad, came to town Friday afternoon on his railroad tricycle, which was bought at the time of the big washouts to enable him to travel back and forth over the road independent of trains. The machine was manufactured by the Sheffield Car Company of Three Rivers, Mich., and is the first of the kind seen in these parts. The motive power is a little gasoline engine and the gas is ignited by an electric battery. The tricycle is capable of high speed and it is said it can be run a mile in two minutes [30 mph]. Mr. Casey left the Vermont and New York state line Friday just behind the east bound passenger train that leaves here at 12:22 p.m., and arrived in Williamstown before the train left this station. In a short time he headed his machine westward, set his gasoline engine to popping and disappeared around the curve in the railroad yard at a rate that would have enabled anybody within reach to ‘play checkers on his coattails’.”

Other than its velocipede, Sheffield’s most notable product was a patented single truck for electric street cars. Known as the “Sheffield Equalizing Truck,” it was first used in Decatur, Illinois, in 1891, apparently with success. We have encountered a number of references to street railways with “Sheffield cars,” although they do not specifically name the builder. Among railways using Sheffield’s cars were the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Ventura County (California) Railway and the St. Joseph Valley Railway of Indiana (pictures above).

In 1902, E.B. Linsley became general manager of the company as well as secretary/treasurer.

About 1905, Sheffield began building gasoline and battery powered passenger cars for street, interurban and steam railways. These cars were of both closed body and open bench types. Here are two views of the closed car.

On the first day of 1910, the capital of the Sheffield Car Company was increased from $200,000 to $400,000 [more than $8 million in today’s buying power] and the following officers were elected:

Charles H. Morse president
W.E. Miller vice-president
E.B. Linsley treasurer and manager
M.J. Huss secretary
W.S. Hovey superintendent

At that time the company occupied 40 acres in the Second ward of the southern part of Three Rivers, and reportedly produced “light motor cars (up to the size of a street car) and . . . dump cars, mining cars, marine engines, stand pipes, electrical machinery, and an endless variety of drills and track tools.” Its letterhead said “Manufacturers of Light Cars for all Purposes.”

During the years under Fairbanks-Morse control, Sheffield absorbed or otherwise came to control several other businesses, including

the Roberts Wheel & Car Company
the Three Rivers Electric Works
the Three Rivers Brass Works
the Three Rivers Velocipede Company
the Three Rivers Railway Supply Company

Several sources say Sheffield ceased operations about 1912, but we have found at least one reference that suggests it was still “the big industry of the town [of Three Rivers]” in early 1915, and another that says Raymond Linsley [son of E.B. Linsley] became general manager of the Sheffield Car Co. in that year.

Though Sheffield had been firmly in the control of Fairbanks, Morse & Company since 1888, when Charles H. Morse bought out Warren Willits’ interest, in 1918 if formally became a part of the Fairbanks-Morse company. The 1924 city directory for Three Rivers, in an “historical” section, under the date of 1918 says “Sheffield Car Company designated by Government as an essential industry necessary to win the [1st World] war,” then under the date of 1919 says “Fairbanks-Morse Co. paved Fourth Street.” And all other references thereafter are to Fairbanks-Morse (Sheffield Works).

And a correspondent points out that page 438 of the 1928 Car-Builders’ Cyclopedia shows motorcars, handcars and velocipedes with individual captions “Sheffield No. 44 Motor car” etc. but with a label at the bottom of the page saying “Fairbanks, Morse & Company.”

And finally, the 1924 Three Rivers directory lists

Fairbanks-Morse Co., Fourth St.
(Sheffield Works) mfg. light
railway cars, locomotive
standpipes, steam power and
centrifugal pumps, W.L.
Woodward gen mfg., M.H.
Rix supt

In 1925, Sheffield was one of 17 car builders that went to the Interstate Commerce Commission alleging unfair competition from the railroads in opening plants to rebuild and repair freight cars, and petitioning it to 1) stop encouraging the railroads to do these repairs in-house, and 2) requesting it to mandate a new accounting system that they contended would reveal the railroads were doing this work at a loss.

The complaining companies were —

The Bettendorf Company Pressed Steel Car Company
Buffalo Steel Car Company Ralston Steel Car Company
General American Car Company Ryan Car Company
Illinois Car & Manufacturing Company Sheffield Car & Equipment Company
Illinois Car Company Siems-Stembel Company
Interstate Car Company Standard Tank Car Company
Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company Streator Car Company
North American Car Company William Hamilton Sons’ Car Company
Pennsylvania Car Company  

Cast of Characters —

George Solyman Sheffield (1831-1914) was born in Geneva, New York. At age 21, he began working as a carpenter. The family moved to Michigan a few years later. In 1860, he was living at Nottawa, Michigan, about 7 miles east of Three Rivers, and was employed as a cabinet maker.

During the Civil War, Sheffield served as a Private in Company A, 11th Michigan Infantry, with which he participated in 14 important battles. He was mustered out 29 September 1864 at Sturgis, Michigan, about 15 miles southeast of Three Rivers.

Following the war, Sheffield spent seven years on a farm, apparently at Bronson, Michigan, roughly 20 miles east of Three Rivers, as it was there the census taker found him at the time of the 1870 census. His occupation is listed as cabinet maker.

In February 1871 Sheffield located just outside Three Rivers, and went to work for pump maker Willis [sic] & Hagen. It appears that it was in order to commute to this job that he devised his three-wheeled vehicle.

Sheffield patented his vehicle in 1879, and entered into a partnership to manufacture his car. According to one local history, he “sold a half interest for a half interest in a pump factory.”  Combining the facts that (1) Sheffield went into business with Warren Willets, and (2) at the time of the 1880 census he was living at Three Rivers, in the household of Warren Willits’ father Jonathan Willits, it is reasonable to suggest that the pump maker for which he went to work, and for a half interest in which he traded a half interest in his new business was Willits [with a “T”] & Hagen. According to the same local history, Sheffield sold his interest in the pump manufactory four years later, and as of the date of that history (1911) it was called “Willis & Lindsey.” [Is it possible this should be Willits & Linsley? . . . Possibly the same E.B. Linsley who became a partner in the car-building business? It is entirely possible, as the writer has demonstrably misunderstood other names and/or spelled them several different ways, sometimes within the same article.]

In 1891, Sheffield either withdrew from, or was forced out of, the company he had founded. He thereafter associated himself with A.C. Himebaugh [Heimbaugh?], head of the First National Bank, and in 1898 they incorporated their business as the Sheffield Manufacturing Company, with Heimbaugh as president, Sheffield as vice-president, and Arch Himebaugh (1867-1952) as secretary/treasurer. With capital of just $50,000, they built their main plant building at Burr Oak, Michigan, in 1902. Sheffield designed and built most of the machinery employed by the company. Their product line included a hand corn planter patented by Sheffield, hand potato planters, garden cultivators, and steel hand sleds.

Besides their partnership in the Sheffield Manufacturing Company, Sheffield and Himebaugh organized the First National Bank of Burr Oak, with Himebaugh as president. Sheffield was a Director, owned a half interest in the bank, and owned the bank building.

In 1900, at age 69, Sheffield was living at Burr Oak, Michigan, southeast of Three Rivers, and gave the census taker his occupation as “Fin. of Sheffield Mfg. Co.” [“Firm of?” or “Financial officer?” Your guess is as good as ours, but whatever it is, he indicates “Months Not Employed” is zero.] Ten years later (1910), at age 79, he was still living at Burr Oak, and gave no occupation, though the Sheffield Manufacturing Company was still going strong in 1911.

Warren J. Willits (1852-1910+) was born at [most likely Three Rivers], Michigan. He may have attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was apparently a person of some means, though we don’t yet know how he acquired it.

The year after Willits sold his interest in Sheffield Velocipede Car Company to Charles H. Morse (1888), when the Three Rivers Light & Power Company installed an electric lighting system for the city, he was president of that Company [and E.B. Linsley was its treasurer]. Three years later (1891) he participated in the organization of the First State Savings Bank and became its president. He remained its president until he went to California in 1902.

We found Warren J. Willits in the 1910 census in Santa Barbara County, California, occupation “Own Income” [i.e., retired].

Edward Baldwin Linsley (1847-1914) was born at Henrietta, New York, a descendant of a long line of Linsleys in America. About 1857, his family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and about 1867 to Three Rivers. After working four years as a clerk in the drug store of Wing & Major, he formed a partnership with Ashbel W. Snyder to open their own drug store under the name of Snyder & Linsley

In 1881, Linsley became a principle in the firm of George S. Sheffield & Company. When it was incorporated in 1882, he became secretary/treasurer, a position he held until 1902, when he became general manager of the company, a position he held until sometime after 1910, and possibly until his death.

Linsley was a member of the Three Rivers Board of Education for many years. He participated in the organization of the Three Rivers Building & Loan Association in 1887 and became its first president. In 1888, he was elected mayor of the city of Three Rivers, which he served one term. When the Sheffield Car Company was reorganized in 1892, he continued as secretary and treasurer.

In 1904, Linsley was elected a state senator from the 6th district. He was re-elected and served in this position through 1908. He was actively identified with the Michigan National Guard for a number of years, and is given great credit for establishing the Three Rivers Public Library.

Raymond Burch Linsley (1885-1915+), son of Edward B. Linsley, was born at Three Rivers. In 1910, he was purchasing agent for the Sheffield company. In 1915, he became its general manager. It appears he left Sheffield when it was acquired by Fairbanks-Morse in 1918.