Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle Works


Citations on this page are from the following sources:

            Burkhart & Gemmel, p.29

            Bartholomew & Metz, p. 45

            Roberts et al (1914)

            Portrait & Biographical Record (1894)


Burkhart & Gemmel Account



The story of Fuller Company began in 1868 when James W. Fuller, Jr. joined the young company of Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle, begun in 1866. Principals of the firm were an uncle, Charles D. Fuller and brother-in-laws William R. Thomas, James Thomas and James H. McKee. They reorganized the firm as McKee, Fuller and Company, but continued to trade under the name Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle.


The company manufactured iron wheels for railroad cars on eight acres located directly across the Lehigh River from the present day intersection of Irving and Lehigh Streets. The era (1880-1890) of rapid expansion of railway lines had not commenced and business was slow, limited to fifteen wheels per day. The need constantly to re-invest profits into the facility discouraged the partners. William R. Thomas moved south in 1871, and his brother James followed a year later. The panic of 1873 and the death of Charles D. Fuller (1873) placed additional hardships on the remaining two partners; James H. McKee and James W. Fuller, Jr.


In 1880 the Erie Railroad announced its intention to buy a large quantity of complete, eight wheel, railroad cars with wooden bin enclosures. They proposed to issue promissory notes as payment. This arrangement would force any consenting firm to privately finance the project. Fuller pledged the entire assets of McKee, Fuller and secured the contract.


Needing additional manufacturing space, the firm purchased the adjoining car plant, Frederick and Beck (1866-1873) which had lain idle for years and was owned by the National Bank of Catasauqua. Fuller telegraphed James Thomas in Alabama, requesting that he re-open the Davies and Thomas Foundry. He guaranteed Thomas work for one year for the manufacture of small castings.


Great success followed and in 1883 William W. McKee (son of James McKee and son-in-law of James Thomas) and Benjamin Franklin Swartz (salesman) were admitted as stockholders. By 1884 the firm's gross yearly revenues reached $4,000,000. Fifteen hundred men were employed and the small hamlet of Fullerton, which Fuller designed in 1870, became a thriving village. Through Mr. Fuller's dual capacities as manager and traveling salesman, working 15 to 18 hours per day, the enterprise became spectacularly successful.


James McKee died in 1895 and his shares were purchased by the firm. Incorporation under the name Lehigh, Car, Wheel & Axle Works was accomplished in 1901 and the three remaining partners realized the benefits of incorporation and protected the firm's assets from lengthy inheritance quarrels.


The plant facilities encompassed sixty acres, stretching along the western banks of the Lehigh River between the river and Lower Catasauqua Road.


During the early 1900's, the Lehigh Valley became the cement capital of the world, with no fewer than 18 cement plants located within a 75 mile radius of Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle Works. Fuller recognized the restrictive growth opportunities of the railway industry and the unlimited future potential of the cement industry. He gradually switched the facilities from the manufacture of railroad cars to that of machinery servicing the cement mills. William McKee died in 1905 and B. Franklin Swartz in 1909. Fuller purchased all outstanding stock and became the sole stockholder. Late in 1909 Fuller retired from the daily business of the firm and his son, Colonel James W. Fuller became president.


James W. Fuller, Jr. died one year later, 1910. Fuller's family inherited the stock of Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle; namely, Kate (nee Thomas), James' wife, and surviving children - Maud, wife of Dr. Louis A. Salade, Mary Louise, wife of H. D. McCaskey and Colonel James W. Fuller (an honorary title of Lieutenant Colonel given him by Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener).


The husbands of Blanche and Mary Louise doubted the future success of the firm and urged their wives to sell their shares to Colonel Fuller. It is assumed that Kate and Maud also relinquished their shares because Colonel Fuller emerged as the sole stokholder. Joseph Elverson remained active with the firm, first as chemist and later as secretary and treasurer. (At age 88, in his obituary, he was listed as consultant to Babcock and Wilcox, successor of Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle.)


In 1910, at age 37, Colonel Fuller appeared sufficiently prepared to handle the responsibilities of running the company. He inherited his father's keen business sense and, through his mother Kate's lineage, he also had an inquiring and inventive mind. (His grandfather was Hopkin Thomas, master mechanic and teacher of many early iron entrepreneurs.)


Colonel Fuller understood the company intimately, having gathered this knowledge during nineteen years of employment. Instead of attending college, upon graduation from Haverford Preparatory School, the Colonel apprenticed himself to the machinist and molders at Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle. He acquired an expert's knowledge of the company's products and principles of mechanical engineering. He was promoted from Secretary to Treasurer to General Sales Manager and finally to President. He invented the Fuller Mill, a device designed to grind clinker rock and coal used in the manufacture of cement.



Portrait & Biographical Record (1894)

For the next three years Mr. Fuller was salesman in a Philadelphia house, and in 1868 he returned to Catasauqua, where he organized the McKee, Fuller & Company Car Wheel Works, and opened a factory at Fullerton. Some years later the firm bought out the bankrupt concern of Fredrick & Co., and about the same time built a forge.  Since then the factory has been known as the Lehigh Car Wheel and Axle Works. The plant covers about ten acres, and during the busy seasons employment is furnished to about fourteen hundred men, while the products are valued at $350,000 to  $380,000 per month.   When the works were established, their capacity was but fifteen wheels per day, but from time to time, through the introduction of the most modern improvements and latest machinery, the capacity has been increased to about three hundred wheels a day. The wheels made are the ordinary cast-iron chilled wheel, and a steel tired wheel designed by Mr. Fuller some years ago, and since perfected, so that they are now the best of their kind in the country. From one car they have now increased to twenty, and during busy times they use in the different departments eighty or a hundred tons of wrought iron and over one hundred tons of cast iron per day. In the ordinary cars there are about one and one-half tons of cast iron and three and one-half tons of wrought iron, outside of the wheels, which have two and one-half tons. The building originally occupied by the company was 50x80 feet in dimensions, which was afterward extended to two hundred and eight feet. Upon the failure of Fredrick & Co., their building, 50x200 feet, was purchased, with an adjoining building, 50x50. The building was later increased to 50x420, and a new structure erected, 80x140, which now forms the car shops. The building, 50x50, was increased to 290x50, with an addition 60x35, another wing 30x80, and a blacksmith and machine shop 50x80. Somewhat later the car-wheel department was improved by the erection of a machine shop, 80x80, with a wing 32x50. The next improvement was the building of a forge with two large steam hammers, and not long afterward the value of the property was increased by the purchase of a building 500x112, utilized as a paint shop.  
Railroad tracks three miles in length extend around the works, enhancing the facilities for the reception of raw material and transportation of products. In addition to the buildings already named, there is a boiler house with four boilers, that furnish power for the car department; also a carpenter shop, 24x62 feet, and two standpipes. One of these is used for oil, which is pumped into the standpipe every morning and let out again at night, the tank holding a sufficient amount for a day's supply.  

The town of Fullerton was laid out by Mr. Fuller in 1870, and was named in his honor. The works of which he is manager, and in the success of which he is largely interested, do an immense business, and their products are larger than those of all the factories in Catasauqua combined. Until recently he and Mr. McKee were the sole proprietors, but four other gentlemen now own an interest in the concern. While they have met with some misfortunes, including the burning out of the forge on two occasions, in the main the history of the Lehigh Car Wheel and Axle Works is one of unexampled prosperity, and their entire losses aggregate not more than $15,000 since the firm was  organized.

Source: Railway Review, Jan. 6, 1883


Bartholomew & Metz Account


One of the largest of the railroad product suppliers in Lehigh County was the car-wheel works built in 1866 by James W. Fuller and James McKee. This firm, known as McKee, Fuller & Company until 1901 when it was incorporated as the Lehigh Car Wheel and Axle Works, was formed originally to manufacture only car wheels. It grew slowly until 1880, when Fuller succeeded in obtaining a contract from the Erie Railroad to build 1,849 eight‑wheeled railroad cars. In order to complete this contract, McKee and Fuller purchased the vacant Frederick car shops which adjoined the south end of their plant and also installed a forge shop to make their own axles. By 1884, the firm employed 1,500 workers and its sales reached $4,000,000 per annum. In 1891 car‑building was discontinued and the firm began manufacturing crushing machinery as the Lehigh Fuller Pulverizing Mills. The reorganized successor to this firm, the Fuller Company, now occupies the former site of the once‑famous Crane Iron Company.


Display at the 1876 International Exposition


History of Lehigh County, 1914 Account.


On or about March 13, 1866, a copartnership was formed by James W. Fuller, Charles D. Fuller, James H. McKee, James Thomas and William A. Thomas under the name of McKee, Fuller and Company to engage in the manufacture of Car Wheels. A tract of land was selected on the line of the C. & F. R. R., west of the Round House, but upon further investigation it was thought advisable to erect the plant on the main line of the L. V. R. R., and a tract of about eight acres of land was purchased from Jacob Lazarus, which is now a part of the operations of the present Company.


The plant originally had a capacity of fifteen wheels per day. The market for the output was limited and the railroad people were not anxious to try a new wheel which had not demonstrated a reputation, and Mr. Fuller in later years was heard to say that were he to live his life over, he would hesitate long before he would engage in an enterprise so fraught with danger to human life and destruction of property as a possible faulty wheel.


On account of the limited market and the panic of 18738, the returns were small, and it was also necessary to reinvest the net proceeds in the purchase of adjoining land and additional machinery. Some of the partners dropped out and ten years later James H. McKee and James W. Fuller only remained as partners.


They then struggled along with varying success and discouragements until 1880, when the Erie Railroad desired to purchase a large quantity of modern eight wheeled cars. Inasmuch as the successful contractor was obliged to finance the proposition by taking car trust debentures in payment, there were few proposals for the contract. Mr. Fuller undertook this immense proposition, and finally succeeded, after long negotiations, by pledging the private fortunes of the partners. A favorable contract was made and the firm purchased the car plant of Frederick and Beck, which had been idle for some years, then owned by the National Bank of Catasauqua, and at once became busy. At one time the lumber arrived so fast that every siding was blocked with laden cars between Allentown and Catasauqua, and for a time fifteen hundred men were employed and Fullerton became a thriving village.


At this time Mr. Fuller telegraphed to his brotherinlaw, James Thomas, then residing in Alabama, if he would come north and reopen the Davies Foundry, he would give him an order for the small castings, sufficient to keep the foundry busy for one year. This offer was accepted and Mr. Thomas came north at once.


From this time on the success of the firm was assured and on February 13, 1883, William W. McKee and B. Frank Swartz were admitted to the firm. At about the same time a forge to forge the axles was added, and the business increased so fast that in the first six months of 1883 they built, complete, eighteen hundred fortynine eightwheeled cars. This business amounted to $2,800,000 for the year. The capacity of the works in 1884 was sufficient to do a business of $4,000,000 per annum.


During these years James W. Fuller's application to his business was incessant, and for the first six years he was not only the Manager, but Traveling Salesman, working generally fifteen to eighteen hours in every twentyfour. It was nothing unusual for him to arrive from the west at East Penn Junction, and walk home at midnight, stopping at the works to see if his watchman was on duty and all was right at the plant.


It was this constant devotion to the business interests of the firm, and pluck and determination that wrested success from a failing enterprise.


After the death of James H. McKee, the interest of his several heirs was placed on sale and acquired by the remaining members of the firm. It became a necessity, owing to the large interests involved, so as to prevent jeopardy to the interests of the others in case of the death of the remaining partner interested, to incorporate the plant. A charter was obtained February 5, 1901, and the outstanding interests purchased, and the business continued under the name of "The Lehigh Car, Wheel & Axle Works."


For some years the business has changed. Wooden cars are no longer made and the railroads manufacture their own wheels. The plant is now principally engaged in manufacturing machinery for cement companies and has a large foreign trade.


The plant comprises sixty acres. The railroad tracks were removed to the eastern end of the plant, the old public road was vacated and new roads were opened so as to form a continuous acreage. The company maintains a reputation as uptodate in the business world, and employs a large force of competent mechanics and workmen of high intelligence and character.


1873 Receipt (Jack Koehler Collection)



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Rev. January 2013