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The Coolest Place on the Train

With the summer heat still on the rise, it might be a scorcher out there today. There is nothing like reaching into the freezer for a nice ice cream cone, or a recently thawed steak to throw on the grill or even check in the fridge for a cold beverage. There is no better feeling than staying cool on a hot summer’s day. But such luxuries were not always accessible to people to beat the heat. Have you ever wondered how frozen foods get from their origins to your house and eventually into your belly? One of the significant innovations in the history of industry and food has been the refrigerated railcar or reefer car. This particular vehicle revolutionized the way food could be transported and changed the landscape of America for good.

an old photo of a buildingThe reefer car has its origins as early as 1842 when the Western Railroad of Massachusetts reported having a special boxcar that was able to carry all types of perishable foods without spoilage. In 1851, the Northern Railroad of New York flirted with the idea of an icebox on wheels. However, this car was only usable in the winter, leading one to wonder if it was just mother nature keeping things fresh. Early cars used heavy insulation, ice bunkers, drains, and roof hatches to load the ice. Some of the insulation used was bizarre by today’s standards. Some of the insulation used included cow hair, sawdust, and even dirt!

After the Civil War, Chicago became the hub of the nation’s meatpacking industry as cattle were delivered from the plains to the meat processing plants that would help make the city famous. Such culinary titans, including Gustavus Swift, George Hammond, and Philip Armour, began to dominate the meatpacking industry. However, they needed a way to transport the dressed meat after it left the plant and made its way to the market.

In 1878 Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase 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. 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 proved to be a practical solution, providing temperature-controlled carriage of dressed meats allowing Swift to ship his products across the United States and internationally.

Of course, like many new ideas, there was some skepticism. Many of the railroads initially refused to use refer cars as they were limited to the commodity that could be hauled and the railroads could not see spending the funds on such a limited enterprise. This then fell to private enterprise, as many of the meatpackers began to purchase their own reefer cars and contract with the railroads to haul them. As such, names like Armour in their classic yellow, and Swift began to appear on the sides of many refrigerator cars. Throughout the 1950s, it was not uncommon to see large cuts of these cars leaving Chicago and bound for the east coast.

By the 1880s refrigerator, cars had become quite advanced with heavy insulation, and a standard size of around 36 feet in length since the loading doors at most packing plants were of that size. Private shippers had also developed icing stations along routes to replenish their reefer cars. Metal cars began to replace wooden ones as they provided better insulation and reduced odors involved with the melting of ice on a wood interior. Further development was yet to come.

In 1941 the first early type of air-conditioning came to the reefer a train is parked on the side of a truckwhen the Pacific Fruit Express Company developed an alternator-driven fan system, which was powered via the car’s moving axle. This system pushed air in large quantities through the ice bunkers and out of vents near the ceiling, helping to cool the car’s contents better. Around this same time, better insulating techniques were developed, such as rubber seals along the car’s interior seams, which helped keep even more outside air out, thus further preserving the perishable contents.

With the explosion of the frozen food industry post-World War II and the 1950s, a redesigned car was needed to keep up with the demand. In steps, the mechanical reefer car. No longer were ice blocks blown with air in an insulated car work. The temperature needed to be maintained over long distances, sometimes for days at a time. The first successful use of this car was by the Fruit Growers Company right after WWII to transport citrus from Florida to the Northeast.

Although the invention of mechanical refrigeration allowed reefer cars to become bigger, the number of cars became significantly reduced, mostly due to the ability to carry a lot of frozen foods over the road using tractor-trailer rigs. The nationwide reefer fleet went from 183,000 cars in 1930 to just 128,000 two decades later in 1950. By the 1970s, many railroads had reduced or eliminated the less profitable less-than-carload and short-haul services, including many reefer units. By 2001 the refrigerator car fleet had dropped to fewer than 8,000 cars, the lowest since 1885. However, by 2019 the number had increased to 25,000 as more farmers and growers gained a new level of trust with railroads to be able to move their products by rail.

So, next time you reach in the freezer for that bucket of ice cream or check the deli freezer for some brats to grill, remember that it was once because of a train and the ability of an industry to keep cool, that allows us to enjoy the freedom to enjoy the backyard barbeque and relax all summer long.


Written by: Justin Lambrecht, education assistant

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