Cool It! – The Heritage of Refrigerator Cars  

Most of us think nothing of going to the grocery store and selecting choice meats, lush vegetables, and fresh fruits whenever we want irrespective of supply limitations or the short duration of specific growing seasons. Advances in refrigeration make that possible and the railroads jump-started that process prior to the American Civil War.

The first experimental “icebox on wheels” was introduced by the Western Railroad of Massachusetts in 1842. The car was not successful, and it was not until 1851 that the first refrigerated boxcar entered regular service on the Northern Railroad of NY which later became part of the Rutland Railroad. That car also had limited success since it functioned only in cold weather. Accordingly, the subject of keeping shipments cool in transit would remain a “work in progress”.

By the late 1850s Chicago had established itself as the hub for the distribution of livestock raised in the Great Plains to Eastern Markets. That process was costly and was potentially hard on animals. Meatpackers sought improved methods of transport to ship dressed meats direct to market. In 1857 , Gustavas Swift experimented with altering conventional boxcars for transporting cut meal during winter months but that experiment was unsuccessful.

Shortly afterward William Davis of Detroit patented a refrigerator car design that featured racks for cut meal cooled by an ice and salt mixture at floor level. Problems arose when partially unsecured cut meat suspended on racks produced violent swing problems on curves in transit and actually caused the cars to overturn. Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase in 1878 to develop an improved design that featured ice bunkers at each end of the car for cooling within an insulated and ventilated, wooden car.  That basic system was employed with only minor variations for over 90 years.

Railroads were lukewarm about the development of refrigerator cars since the expanded use of those cars threatened their substantial investment in on-line stock yards and watering facilities for cattle. Gradually railroads retreated and soon large mainline icing facilities to service dedicated refrigerator car trains replaced many stock yards and refrigerator car service expanded substantially. In the 1870s Georgia peach growers began to embrace refrigerator cars to better market their product. Soon afterward the shipment of fresh fruits and vegetables became commonplace.

Private refrigerator lines rapidly appeared and among the largest was Pacific Fruit Express (PFE), headquartered in Rossville, CA and Merchants Dispatch Transit (MDT), headquartered in Rochester, NY. The former was primarily operated by the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific and the latter began life as a vassal of the NYC.

Because of the availability and low coat, wood was the choice component of refrigerator car but in 1913 the PRR built a series of steel cars and in the early 1920s private car builders introduced several classes of steel cars for the mass market.

The period from 1890 through 1920 was truly the golden era of colorful “billboard graphics” on refrigerator cars, or as some call “reefers”. Popular pallets for base car colors included yellow and orange but MDT selected bright white accented by a red and blue stripe reinforcing patriotism. The accompanying lettering. logos and supporting graphics were truly works of commercial art. Breweries and confectioners also embraced refrigerator cars and likewise embellished them with colorful and memorable bold graphics.

Overzealous regulators sensed that “billboard graphics’ actually obscured the true contents of the car and later discovered that shippers and the railroads conspired to comingle regular “billboard” boxcars in service that by law needed refrigeration and some shippers objected to their load being transported in a “deadheaded” car advertising a competitor and the subsequently “billboard” cars were outlawed.

Ice remained the primary coolant but experiments with mechanical refrigeration commenced in the early 1920s. Thermo King Corporation finally introduced a reliable diesel-powered refrigeration unit in 1948 that eventually became the standard for at least a decade. Advanced truck-trailer designs, the expansive interstate highway system and changes in demographics saw much of that traffic move to the motor freight industry in the 1950s and 1960s however more advanced refrigerator car designs and efficiencies adherent to railroads have seen a slight shift in that pattern.

Take time to thankfully contemplate the wide availability of meats, vegetables and fruits we now enjoy on our tables each evening and consider adding refrigerator car service to your model railroad. No matter what era you favor, refrigerator cars can add a colorful diversion to any basic railroad operation. If you have space, a railroad icing facility or cold storage plant can also add depth and interest to any model railroad scene. We believe in the value of that subject and encourage you to look at our current offering of products related to that grand history. So Cool It! Our acclaimed Rewards Program will help you accomplish your goal of expanding your refrigerator car fleet in time for the hot summer months.

Click here to view our extensive selection of refrigerator cars and inspire your layout with their rich history!

FAW MB Klein, Inc