Fruit Growers Express Refrigerated Rail Car at the California State Railroad Museum Fruit Growers Express Reefer P. Kalscheuer

A Brief History of the Refrigerated Railroad Car

Railroad employees, train enthusiasts, farmers and meat packers can all attest to the vital role refrigerated rail transportation has played since it's inception in the 1840s. Most people go through their days without a thought about the importance of refrigeration and its use in the railroad industry. That is understandable since refrigeration has been a part of our lives for years and is naturally taken for granted. Plus, the movement of perishable items across the country is probably not top of mind.

Early refrigerated rail car An example of a refrigerated rail car from the 1870s. PD-US.

Fun Fact: Did you know the origin of refrigeration can be traced back to China circa 1000 B.C?1 Yep. Its believed that the Chinese harvested ice and kept it in cellars to protect their food supplies. That's cool.

In the Beginning

Early on, ice and salt were placed alongside and under the cargo in the hopes of reducing spoilage. These attempts at protecting perishable goods met with some success, but often the consequences (changes to the taste and color of meat for example) made it impractical.

Other simple ideas such as "top icing" (see photo) were tried with mixed results. None were truly successful in all areas. Spoiled products, unreasonable cost, or derailments were often the result of these well-intended notions.

Fun Fact: The first patent for a refrigerated rail car design was issued to J.B. Sutherland in 1867.

Refrigerator Cars Evolve

Workers adding ice in top of refrigerated rail car Workers adding ice through special doors in the reefer's roof. PD-US.

There was real progress when work began to build special boxcars to move produce, dairy products and meat from state to state. The first patent for refrigerated rail cars, or "reefers" as they are called in the railroad industry, was granted to J.B. Sutherland from Detroit, Michigan in 1867. His design included special holding areas for ice at each end of purpose-built insulated boxcars.

Blocks of ice were loaded by hand and mechanical devices through ports, or doors in the roof of the boxcar. Flaps at the top and bottom of the car were used to regulate airflow throughout, allowing the movement of chilled air around the cargo.

In 1878, meat packing magnate Gustavus Franklin Swift commissioned an improved rail car design to transport meat from his many facilities by rail throughout the country. Engineer Andrew Chase was given the task, and came up with a design that significantly improved the way air circulated inside the cars. Swift eventually had nearly 200 refrigerated rail cars.

Swift refrigerated rail car Swift Refrigerator Line circa 1899 PD-US.

Swift and other meat packers of his day met with great resistance from the railroads. Refrigerated cars were typically twice the cost of a traditional box car, and the revenue potential wasn't initially clear. In fact, packers like Swift, George Hammond and Philip Armour invested their own money to develop cars that the rail lines wouldn't. Eventually the efficiency of shipping dressed meat won out over the traditional method of transporting cattle.

Modern refrigerated rail car A modern day refrigerated rail car. ARMN 761511, a refrigerator car in use on May 29, 2005, Rochelle, Illinois. Photo by Sean Lamb and Harvey Henkelmann

Fun Fact: Did you know the term "reefer" was first used around 1914 to describe a refrigerated rail car? That's 13 years earlier than another common use of the term.2 Let's take back the word!

Top icing was a practiced used attempts to cool cargo on the rails "Top icing" was a technique used to cool cargo. PD-US.
Ice compartment detail from reefer circa 1920-1930 Ice compartment detail from reefer circa 1920-1930 P. Kalscheuer
Ice compartment detail from reefer circa 1920-1930 Example of reefer car insulation P. Kalscheuer
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