The advent of refrigerated railroad cars had wide-reaching implications for the world. Reefers fundamentally changed the way we produced and consumed foods of all types. The American diet was no longer limited to the local growing climates and increased demand gave rise to commercial food production on a grand scale.
The whole system really began to come together following the Civil War. Circulating fans, often driven by the axles of the car, moveable racks and bulkheads and special doors were among the many innovations. Cars would also be iced and cooled in different manners for different loads as well. Varying mixtures of chunk and crushed ice, and salt were used depending on the temperatures required. Cars could also be pre-cooled before loading.
One of the common misunderstandings of reefers is that they are all essentially the same. In reality, there are many different types of refrigerators, each tailored to the specific loads they carry. Just like you wouldn’t store fresh fish and a potato in the same manner at home, so too must railroads handle these loads separately. A basic insulated boxcar without refrigeration is good for many loads, including canned foods. These cars help keep loads cool in the summer and are equally good at keeping them warm in winter. Reefers in meat service were equipped with special racks for hanging dressed beef. Express reefers were used on mail and passenger trains and were ideal for smaller “LCL” shipments.
Modelers have long loved reefers for their colorful paint schemes. The “billboard” reefers, which featured elaborate advertising schemes for everything from beer to chocolate, were outlawed by the ICC in 1937. This was due to shipper complaints of their products being loaded into cars advertising a competitor. Even after this, company and railroad-pool owned cars often remained brightly colored.
While railroads owned a few cars of their own, most managed their reefers through subsidiary companies, often in partnership with other lines. Pacific Fruit Express, Fruit Growers Express, American Fruit Express and many more were common sights. This gave the railroads more freedom in routing cars for seasonal demands. Most cars used in meat service were owned by the packing companies themselves. Railway Express Agency, along with many railroads, offered express refrigerators that were equipped for use on passenger trains. Railroads also retained a few cars for their own use, shuttling ice from natural or artificial production centers to outlying icing platforms where reefers would be topped off along the way.
Mechanical refrigeration began appearing on the rails in the late 1950s. Iced cars could still be seen in service until the early 1970s. The improvements in mechanical refrigeration coincided with improvements in trucking and interstate highways, and most of the business once hauled in 40′ reefers now travels in 53′ trailers. In fact, although reefers can still be found on rails in relatively small numbers, a substantial portion of the food traffic handled on trains today is in containers and trailers on board intermodal trains.
Whether you add an icing platform, a produce warehouse, or a meat-packing plant to your layout, or even if you just have a few reefers in your trains passing through, there is no reason you can’t keep your railroad cool with a few of these venerable cars!