Keith Car Works - An Early Manufacturing Powerhouse On Cape Cod

May 7, 2018

The Keith Car Works, with company houses in the foreground.
Credit wikipedia.com

The Keith Car Works was a huge factory that once stood on land that existed before the present-day Cape Cod Canal was dug out. But the name is a bit misleading, as the factory primarily made various types of wagons, and later, railroad cars. Jerry Ellis is a former Bourne selectman whose house sits about 50 yards from the canal.

“They started off with a blacksmith shop, and they made carriages, and that started out in 1828 right in this area,” Ellis said. 

The factory was started by Isaac Keith, a man known for being a forward thinker. At its peak, the Keith Car Works employed around 1,400 people. It was the largest building on Cape Cod at the time – around 1,330 feet long. 

Workers at the plant were mainly Italian laborers. The plant’s owners eventually created a factory town, which had a number of firsts for the area.

This photo shows the first "mall" on Cape Cod - built for workers at the Keith Car Works.
Credit unknown

“The first doctor, so that all the people here could have their own doctor instead of going a long distance. They built the first mall, as it were, in the village of Sagamore, that had approximately 25 stores, from Adams Pharmacy to dry goods stores to donut shops,” Ellis said. 

When Gold Rush fever took hold in California, the factory started churning out wagons to accommodate the hordes of people heading west. They also produced other items the hopeful fortune-seekers might need, like picks, shovels, axes, and crowbars. 

Isaac Keith constantly adapted production at the plant to fit the needs of the moment. When the Civil War began, the plant began making wagons to haul cannons. After Isaac’s death in 1870, his two sons took over and the Keith Car Works continued to prosper. Around the start of World War One, the plant secured a contract to build 40,000 rail cars known as “40 and 8’s” – cars that were built for 40 men or eight horses. The cars would be manufactured and pre-fabricated for shipment to France.

The Keith Car Works was known as a model of production efficiency.

“You take a car in the far west end of the factory, and when it came out to the far east end of the factory on the Sandwich town line, you had a finished boxcar,” said Jerry Ellis. “Six blacksmith shops within the factory…by 1905 or 6, the whole factory was electrified – one of the first areas around here.” 

After World War I, the factory’s contract for 40,000 rail cars had run out, so the plant began refurbishing wooden boxcars – around 14,000 a year. But by then, the railroad system was shifting to metal boxcars, and the plant would have to have re-tooled their entire facility to adapt. The Keith Car Works closed in 1928. At around the same time, the original Cape Cod Canal needed to be widened and made deeper, so the government stepped in and took it over. 

“The bridges were built, the canal was widened, Keith Car Company disappeared, all the buildings were taken down by 1938, and everyone said the whole car company’s gone, there’s nothing left. But what is a monument to Mr. Keith and his innovation were the houses that he left behind,” said Ellis. 

Those houses are still scattered around present-day Sagamore. And many Sagamore residents still live in buildings that once housed workers at the Keith Car Works.