South Bend Singer and Its Little Railroad
When I think back to my first week in South Bend, it surprises me that it was the roundhouse I found first—it’s on the very edge of the city, nearer to what looked (and smelled) like an ethanol plant than downtown.
I was not even sure what I had found until I got close enough to see through the thick vines that have consumed half the building.
One side had two giant, wooden train doors that were rotting off the hinges. Through the collapse, it was apparent part of the roof had recently caved in. Inside the backlit vines made the inside glow green, and there was a whiff of natural gas. That smell got thicker as I worked my way deeper into the offices, wondering if any interesting paperwork was left. It had obviously been left to nature… ‘demolition by neglect’ is perhaps more descriptive.
Inside the bathroom was evidence of a past squat in a pillow of newspapers stuffed into an old pant leg, next to which protruded from the wall a copper pipe—a hissing pipe. I am not much of a smoker, and at that moment I was happier, and, perhaps, more alive, for the fact.
Not much was left in the roundhouse that points to its history—some signal charts and a drill press—but I was happy then, as I am now, that it stood at all. And that it glowed green from the inside, as if it was embracing being part of the ground again. I give it five years, if the dozers don’t find it first.
Not wanting a fireball to beat the dozers or Mother Nature, I called the gas hotline and made sure they knew about the leak.
The Singer Cabinet Factory
Not knowing that the two locations were connected, I came across the Singer plant a week later while in the middle of a hunt for the Huron Smelting Company. While I was walking the railroad to get a shot of the Huron smokestack, I saw the faint lettering on the back of an evidently old brick building. Singer.
“The Singer?” I thought. Scrutinizing the facade more, I saw another layer—“Sewing”—yes, this is the one!
When I returned the following day it was clear that the complex ranged from nice, remodeled offices, to crumbling turn-of-the-century industrial floors in minor disrepair. The roof had some growth coming from it—grasses, not trees—and some of the bricks in need of replacement because of faulty gutters and moisture invasion.
What I thought was one long building from behind was in fact four buildings joined together. The office building occupied one quarter of the stretch on the southern tip, while the three northern sections were seemingly used for storage, although one door advertised it as the former home of a Christmas wreath company.
I cupped an ear to a hole in one of the walls. I heard a man and woman talking about me, but in terms of, “a strange guy with a camera snooping outside—maybe a cop.” To put their minds at ease, I finished my photo shoot and soon departed.
Later, I began to research the history of the complex, and found it interwoven with the roundhouse, which I had begun calling ‘Olive Rail Works’ after the road it was on.
Singer Brothers Company, the makers of the Singer brand of sewing machines, decided in 1868 that South Bend would be the site of their next factory. South Bend was rapidly growing into an industrial lynchpin of the Midwest thanks to Studebaker’s success, and the town was surrounded by oak and walnut trees—perfect for sewing machine cabinets.
That year, construction started.
While the plant was expanding in the early 1900s, Singer concluded that the local rail service was inadequate for their future volume. Their solution was simple: they would start their own railroad company.
New Jersey, Indiana and Illinois railroad was formed in 1905 to serve some of the biggest South Bend factories. Besides Singer, Studebaker and Wilson Bros were both customers of the NJII. If you are wondering about the name, it is the states in which Singer has factories. At the time, the Singer factory alone was producing about 10,000 cabinets per day.
Besides industrial work, the railway also ran a daily passenger train to Detroit and back. All of this started in South Bend and went about 12 miles to Pine, Indiana, where the tracks joined Wabash RR, a regionally important road.
After the Wabash bought the NJII in 1926, a logical consolidation, little changed until 1930, when all passenger service ceased for the NJII lines.
During World War II all of South Bend changed output. While I go into detail in my Studebaker article about that factory’s work, Singer was contracted to make wooden airplane parts, ammunition crates, and wooden buoys. Whatever could me made from wood instead of aluminum, which was in short supply, was crafted in factories like Singer. By 1944 the plant even built more than 500 gas tanks for the war effort.
After the war, Singer could not cope with union demands or competition from the growing consumer market. In short, more women were buying their clothes than making them. It may also be argued that the growing model of the ‘new woman’ was one that resisted the idea of sitting for hours at the sewing machine.
Singer left South Bend in 1955, leaving its former buildings to be used by smaller manufacturers. A fire later destroyed much of the complex as well—as of 2011 only 2 buildings could easily be identified as part of 20th century Singer.
The roundhouse on Olive Street was the main engine house for NJII, even as Wabash operated the facility in that name. It was originally three stalls, but reduced to two sometime in the 1970s for reasons unknown. When the third stall was trimmed it appears the turntable was removed as well.
Wabash was absorbed into Norfolk-Southern in 1982, and shortly thereafter the NJII facilities were disused.