The Sheffield Company and Fairbanks-Morse
at Three Rivers, Michigan
 

After a long work week, George Sheffield didn't really want to walk home. But it was the 1870s, and trains didn't run on the weekend when he needed to make the 10-mile commute from his job in Three Rivers, Michigan to home in Burr Oak. So he walked, but as he did he pondered how to make the trip easier.

The answer came in his invention of a “velocipede” or three-wheeled, hand-powered vehicle made for travel on train tracks. Without the railroad company's knowledge, Sheffield began driving his velocipede between work and home. One night while driving, he discovered a broken rail and alerted railroad officials in time to save a train from derailing. His unique mode of transportation, now known to the officials, piqued their interest and they requested he build several more.

 The velocipede proved useful for track inspection and maintenance and in 1879 Sheffield patented it. Three years later the Sheffield Velocipede Car Company incorporated. It grew and grew. They made thousands of velocipedes and sold them the world over. At one point, the company employed between 1,000 and 1,500 people and manufactured not only velocipedes but also over 30 different types of cars for railroad repair, milling, lumbering, contracting and plantation work.

In the early 1900s, Sheffield Car Company (“Velocipede" was dropped in 1892) consolidated with Fairbanks Morse. Products included not only velocipede construction but also construction of engines for the Navy, testing of pumps and marine parts and manufacture of copper wire. Fairbanks Morse even built railroad motor cars, of which a handful still exist.

As late as 1955, the company still employed 365 workers in Three Rivers making hammer mills, water tanks and custom metal work. Eventually the factory was sold to the Essex Wire company and then to Decatur Elevator. From 1994 to 2004 the huge metal buildings stood vacant. Eventually heavily vandalized and in poor condition, the city commission paid to have them demolished in 2004. Today the site stands empty.

Drawings/Photos of the Factory

1999 Photos of the Three Rivers Plant

The Plant Site in 2007

Miscellaneous Drawings and Photos

Excerpt from a letter written in 1995, author unknown

In 1946 I worked for Fairbanks Morse as a laborer's helper. I was there but 4 to 6 weeks, but I recall the experience vividly. The plant was old then but still made the 3-wheeled railroad track car. it made coal stokers for delivering coal into the furnace fireboxes of residential coal-fire furnaces and it also made parts for a F-M diesel railroad locomotive. The major part it made was the huge engine block for a unique 20-piston, I0-cylinder diesel engine and it was welded, not cast. I'm sure the Three Rivers plant made other locomotive parts but that part was notable. The locomotives were assembled in Beloit, Wisconsin. There is one such locomotive in the Southern Pacific RR yard in Sacramento...inoperative, of course, unmistakably an F-M engine because of the engine's design necessary to accommodate the huge diesel power plant.

I recall that the plant made virtually everything in-house. It had its own foundry, machine shop, et al. My job was to take the newly casted parts, usually small, and stack them outside on wooden pallets where they would stay for weeks "seasoning" in the sun and weather...so explained my foreman. This was in response to my question about handling the parts twice. I thought they should go directly from the foundry to the machine shop. The coal stokers were built, assembled and painted (burgundy and cream). Then shipped directly to the wholesalers/installers.

Acknowledgement - All of the information here, with the exception of the 1999 and 2007 photos, came from the History Room at the Three Rivers Public Library.

Copyright on all materials © 2010 Jeremy Winkworth

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Last Edited 28 November, 2010