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FreightWaves Classics: Refrigeration helped railroads move fresh food nationwide (Part 1)

Overview

In the railroad industry, a refrigerator car (or “reefer”) is a refrigerated boxcar that is designed to carry perishable freight at specific temperatures. Reefer railcars are different from insulated boxcars and ventilated boxcars (commonly used for transporting fruit), because neither is fitted with cooling apparatus. 

Reefers were first cooled by ice; now they are equipped with any one of a variety of mechanical refrigeration systems, or utilize carbon dioxide (either as dry ice, or in liquid form) as a cooling agent. Milk cars (and other types of “express” reefers) may or may not have a cooling system. However, they are equipped with modifications so that they can travel with passenger trains.

A cut-away view of an early version of a refrigerator railcar, circa 1870s. 
(Image: National Railroad Museum)
A cut-away view of an early version of a refrigerator railcar, circa 1870s.
(Image: National Railroad Museum)

Post-Civil War

After the Civil War, Chicago became a major railhead for the distribution of meat from livestock raised on the Great Plains to markets in the eastern U.S. Transporting the animals to slaughterhouses in Chicago required herds to be driven up to 1,200 miles to railheads in Kansas City, Missouri or other locations in the Midwest, such as Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas. In those cities, livestock was loaded into specialized railcars and transported live (“on-the-hoof”) to Chicago’s processing centers. 

Herding cattle toward railcars. (Photo: visitdodgecity.org)
Herding cattle toward railcars. (Photo: visitdodgecity.org)

Cattle drives caused tremendous weight loss, and some of the weaker animals died along the trail. There were also expensive inefficiencies in rail transport (approximately 60% of the animal’s mass was inedible). The death of some of the animals in transit also increased the per-unit shipping cost.

Once in Chicago, livestock were slaughtered by wholesalers. Some of the meat was delivered fresh to nearby butcher shops for retail sale; the bulk was smoked or packed in barrels of salt so that they could be shipped to population centers in the eastern U.S. Both these methods changed the flavor of the meat, but allowed it to be shipped longer distances. However, the meat processors sought a better method to ship dressed meats from their Chicago packing plants to markets “back East.”

Early attempts at refrigerated transport

The June 15, 1842 edition of The Boston Traveler reported that the Western Railroad of Massachusetts was experimenting with different railcar designs that could carry a variety of perishable goods without spoilage. 

In June 1851 the first refrigerated boxcar entered service on the Northern Railroad of New York. This “icebox on wheels” was only functional in cold weather, so its use was limited. Also during 1851 the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began transporting butter to Boston in purpose-built freight cars, utilizing ice for cooling.

An advertisement for an early refrigerator railcar. 
(Image: Mid-Continent Railway Museum)
An advertisement for an early refrigerator railcar.
(Image: Mid-Continent Railway Museum)

The term “dressed beef” refers to the process in which cattle are partially butchered. The internal organs are removed, and often the “head as well as inedible (or less desirable) portions of the tail and legs” are removed also. Dressed beef does include the remaining “bones, cartilage and other body structure still attached after this initial butchering.” The weight of dressed beef averages 59% of the original weight of the cattle. In 1857 the first load of dressed beef was shipped eastward from the Chicago stockyards in ordinary boxcars that also contained bins filled with ice. However, placing the meat directly against ice resulted in discoloration and affected its taste, so this was an impractical solution. 

At about the same time, Gustavas Swift (founder of Swift and Company) experimented by moving dressed meat to New York in 10 boxcars with their doors removed. However, this also proved to be impractical.

These efforts were followed by a “refrigerator car that employed metal racks to suspend the carcasses above a frozen mixture of ice and salt.” William Davis patented this railcar in 1868 and sold the design to George H. Hammond, a Detroit meat packer. Hammond had a set of railcars built as Davis had designed them to transport his products to Boston using ice from the Great Lakes for cooling. However, this too proved to be impractical; loads had a tendency to swing to one side when the train entered a curve at high speed. Use of the railcars was  discontinued after several derailments occurred.

One of the Swift Refrigerator Line's refrigerated railcars. {Photo: tractorsfandom.com)
One of the Swift Refrigerator Line’s refrigerated railcars. {Photo: tractorsfandom.com)

The breakthrough (and start of an empire)

Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase in 1878 “to design a ventilated car that was well insulated, and positioned the ice in a compartment at the top of the car, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward.” To prevent the balance issues encountered by Hammond, the meat was “packed tightly at the bottom of the car to keep the center of gravity low and to prevent the cargo from shifting.” Chase’s design was a practical solution that allowed dressed meats to be shipped in temperature-controlled carriages. Swift and Company was the first meat processor to ship its products across the United States (and later internationally).

The Grand Trunk Railway helped Swift move its meat eastward. (Image: londonremembers.com)
The Grand Trunk Railway helped Swift move its meat eastward. (Image: londonremembers.com)

However, once the new railcars were ready for use, most railroads would not allow them to be attached to their trains. Swift would not be deterred; he contracted with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) to haul the cars into Michigan and then eastward through Canada. (The GTR generated very little income from transporting live cattle, and therefore its management was not “afraid” to transport his refrigerated railcars). Other railroads such as the Erie, Lackawanna, New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads also transported Swift’s railcars to the population centers of the Northeast.

Swift attempted to sell Chase’s design to a number of major railroads. However, the railroads had invested significant amounts of money in railcars to carry livestock (stockcars), animal pens and feedlots; if refrigerated meat transport was widely adopted, those investments would be worthless. Therefore, Swift underwrote the initial production run of reefers. The Peninsular Car Company delivered the railcars to Swift, who then founded the Swift Refrigerator Line (SRL). 

Within a year, the SRL had nearly 200 refrigerated units, and Swift was shipping an average of 3,000 carcasses of dressed beef a week to Boston. Witnessing Swift’s success, competitors such as Armour and Company had their own railcars built. The SRL fleet grew; by 1920 it owned and operated 7,000 of the ice-cooled rail cars. In 1930 the SRL was sold to the General American Transportation Corporation.

Lake Champlain's ice. (Photo: lakechamplaincommittee.org)
Lake Champlain’s ice. (Photo: lakechamplaincommittee.org)

Ice

The use of ice to refrigerate and preserve food dates back to prehistoric times. Over the centuries,  “the seasonal harvesting of snow and ice was a regular practice of many cultures.” The Chinese, Greeks and Romans stored ice and snow in “caves, dugouts or ice houses lined with straw or other insulating materials.” Rationing ice allowed the preservation of foods during the warmer months, a practice successfully used for centuries. 

During the late 1800s, natural ice (harvested from ponds, rivers and lakes) was used to supply the new refrigerator railcars. In areas where water froze during the winter, 1-foot-by1-foot tanks were filled with water and allowed to freeze into blocks of ice. “Harvested” Ice was usually cut into blocks during the winter and then stored in insulated warehouses. Sawdust and/or hay was packed around the ice blocks to provide additional insulation. 

Ice blocks (also called “cakes”) were placed manually into the refrigerator railcars from a covered icing dock. Each block weighed between 200 and 400 pounds. Crushed ice was more expensive and was typically used in railcars carrying meat.

Ice harvesting. (Photo: ultimatehistoryproject.com)
Ice harvesting. (Photo: ultimatehistoryproject.com)

The process of using refrigerator railcars was fairly complex for the time. Depending on the cargo and its destination, the railcars may (or may not) have been fumigated. The railcars were delivered to the shipper for loading, and each railcar’s ice was topped-off. The train hauling the reefers would depart for markets in the East. The cars were re-iced during transit approximately once a day (sometimes more often, depending on the outdoor temperature). When the railcars reached their destination, the cars were unloaded. If there was a specific demand for the railcars, they would be returned empty (deadheaded) to their point of origin. If not, the railcars would be cleaned and used for a shipment of dry goods.

The earliest reefers were made of wood; as noted above they required fresh ice every 250-400 miles, depending on the outdoor temperature. “Top icing” was the practice of placing a 2- to 4-inch layer of crushed ice atop agricultural products that have “high respiration rates, need high relative humidity, and benefit from having the cooling agent sit directly atop the load (or within individual boxes).” Railcars with pre-cooled fresh produce were top-iced just before the shipment left its origin. Significant dead weight was added to a railcar’s load when the top ice method was used (top-icing a 40-foot reefer required more than 10,000 pounds of ice). 

It was thought that as the top ice melted, the “resulting chilled water would trickle down through the load to continue the cooling process.” However, produce and railroad workers learned that top-icing only benefited the top few layers of the cargo, and that water from the melting ice would generally pass through spaces between the cartons, crates and/or pallets without providing a cooling effect. Top-icing would only prevent an increase in temperature in the railcars; it did not actually cool the cargo, so the practice was eventually discontinued.

A wooden refrigerator railcar owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. 
(Photo: trainweb.org)
A wooden refrigerator railcar owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
(Photo: trainweb.org)

Fresh fruit and produce

In the 1870s, there was not a practical method to refrigerate and ship peaches. As noted above, this limited the markets for this (and other) fruit. However, in 1875, Georgia peach grower Samuel Rumph invented a refrigerated railcar and special crates. He was able to grow peaches on a very large scale and ship them to distant markets while they were still fresh. 

On the West Coast, Edwin T. Earl was the president of the Earl Fruit Company, which was located near Red Bluff, California. Earl invented the refrigerator car to transport fruits to the U.S. East Coast in 1890. He founded Continental Fruit Express and invested $2 million to build a fleet of refrigerator railcars. He sold his refrigerator cars to meatpacker Armour and Company in 1901.

An Earl Fruit Company label. (Image: Calisphere.org)
An Earl Fruit Company label. (Image: Calisphere.org)

As noted above, prior to 1900, most ice used in refrigerated railcars was “natural” ice that had been “harvested” from frozen lakes, ponds and rivers. Manufactured ice became more common in the early years of the 20th century. This led to a joint venture between the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. Named the Pacific Fruit Express (PFE), it eventually had a fleet of 6,600 refrigerated railcars built by the American Car and Foundry Company (ACF). PFE had seven natural ice harvesting facilities and also operated 18 artificial ice plants. The largest plant was in Roseville, California, which is near the state capitol of Sacramento and produce-growing areas of the state. The plant  produced over 1,000 tons of ice daily, and Roseville’s docks could handle up to 254 railcars at a time. At its peak, the industry produced 1.2 million tons of ice for refrigerator railcar use each year.

One Comment

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.