Railroad Cars and James Crossen, Cobourg Ontario

Image courtesy of The Cobourg Museum Foundation

James Crossen arrived in Cobourg and began work at the Helm Foundry and became a full partner in 1865. At this time the Cobourg Peterborough Railroad and Mining Company placed orders for several wooden dump cars for ore transportation. By 1873 many railroad companies approached Crossen with orders and the company was renamed the Cobourg Car Works. By 1878 the Car Works Company added passenger coach construction in competition with the American firms such as The Pullman and the Barney & Smith Car Company. At this same time, the Canadian Government enacted legislation to restrict American imports of goods and products. The “Tilley Tariff Act” was very beneficial for the new Cobourg Company. In 1890, on the death of James Crossen the company was re-organized as the Crossen Car Company.

According to the Crossen Family History (by Robert Willmot), the connecting person for the Cobourg Crossen Car Company Crossens and the descendants of Robert John Crossen (1857-1938), a Sunderland Ontario farmer was Thomas Crossen Sr. also a farmer was born in Comber County Down in Ireland, and died near Cobourg about 1847. Mr. Crossen Sr. came to Cobourg in 1827 with his wife Elizabeth and settled on 200 acres of land in Northumberland County, Lot 17, between the 4th and fifth Concessions. This farm was just east of Camborne, a beautiful stone house built in 1850, the birthplace of Robert John Crossen is still standing on Minifie Road.

The father of the founder of the Cobourg Car Crossens, James Crossen Sr. (1800-1886) came to the United States in 1842 from Comber with his wife Mary Abernathy and ten children and settled on a farm in Western New York near Batavia. James Crossen Jr. came from Batavia to Cobourg later that year. He started a foundry which developed into the Crossen Car Works, employing 500 employees at its peak, the largest employer in Cobourg, known throughout the continent for its products.

The Crossens prospered over the years thanks to the enterprising James Jr. who worked his way up as an iron finisher in a machine shop to become an engineer and to the leading manufacturer in Canada of all kinds of railway cars. He is described in a scrapbook on Cobourg history, in the public library as “one the most honest-minded, hard- working, and most successful of the men whose car works had never failed and were first located at the old “Helm” foundry on College Street opposite Swayne Street where St. Peter’s Church School was located. The citizens of Cobourg were proud of the company, making it possible on at least one occasion to keep the business in Cobourg by helping James Jr. to expand in a new location behind and to the north of his home at 465 George Street, built in1871.   In 1881 a fire caused major problems at the plant, eight cars were destroyed, the plant was rebuilt and the business continued.

William James Crossen (1857-1927), who married Minnie Victoria Howell in 1880, became the Works Manager of the car works on the death of his father in 1893, another son of the founder, Frederick John was educated in Cobourg’s Victoria University and went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston to train for family company business. He was here for only a year when his father died. A son-in-law of the founder, Justice Thomas Riddell became President and all the daughters of James Crossen Jr. served as directors on the Board. Thanks to the founder of the Crossen Car Works James Jr. completed his education at the Victoria University in Cobourg and married Margaret Jane Hayden of England in 1854. Margaret was the daughter of Rev. William Hayden, the founder of the Coldsprings Congregationalist Church.

The Crossen Car Works success was greatly aided by the construction of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway which began in 1852 and ran alongside of the factory and by other railroads at this time designed to open Canada and keep it together. With an excellent market for their diversified railway cars from lumber, flat cars, coal, mail, baggage and express to passenger cars the company flourished in Cobourg. The Crossen Car Works was especially well known for their luxurious passenger coaches and their hand-carved woodwork, electric lighting and many early modern conveniences. The Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne with his wife the Princess Louise, toured the country in a specially designed Crossen coach. Crossen cars ran on most Canadian railways including the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Inter Colonial, and Canada Atlantic and some American lines like the Erie and the Detroit Railway. At the height of the business it has been said that the Crossen Car Works was capable of manufacturing some seven passenger and one-hundred & fifty freight cars a month and employed some 600 employees.

Unfortunately times were changing, and in order to survive, the Cobourg Car Works Company at great expense had to be converted to all steel car production and their largest customer, the Canadian Pacific Railroad began production of their own railroad cars at the Hochelaga Shops in Montreal. The business was carried on by the elder son of the founder until the end of the all-wood cars ended. Several colonist and baggage cars for the Canadian Norther Railway were completed before the company went into voluntary liquidation. The Crossen Car Works closed around 1915. The empty factory buildings were purchased by Robson Lang Leathers Ltd. and all the buildings have now been demolished.

An interesting note: according to a an article (Cobourg Museum) in the early days of the Car Company, James Crossen threatened to move his business to Port Hope where a manufacturing facility and a more favourable tax situation than Cobourg were offered.

Regards, Ranger


  1. See Ted Rafuse’s book “Wooden Cars on Steel Rails: A History of the Crossen Car Manufacturing Companies, Cobourg, Ontario” for further details of the Crossen Companies.


    1. Ted, thanks for your comment. I am looking forward to reading more of the Crossen Manufacturing Companies. I really enjoy reading your railroad stories.


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