Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars that Changed the World: The Reefer

5 04 2013

Freight cars are apart of our everyday life, whether we realize it or not. As part of a global transportation network, trains carry the goods and raw materials that make life as we know it possible today. But every now and then a car comes along that changes the way we live and work. Throughout April, we’ll be highlighting some of these cars each Friday.

The Reefer


The reefer changed our diet and our production.

Although the addition of insulation and ice to a boxcar may not seem like a major revolution – the effect advent of refrigerated rail transport had sweeping impacts on agriculture, diet and the health of the industrialized world.

Until the invention of the iced refrigerator car, the diet of the average person was limited to what could be grown locally in season, or preserved through the rest of the year. Farming and food production was generally also a local or regional business. Just as refrigeration at home would change the way we prepared and stored food, so too would refrigerated transit change the way society as a whole could consume crops from around the world.

straight line map

Railroads and shippers took great pride in their reefers, often given them bright or elaborate paint schemes.

With the advent of the reefer, and the system of icing stations needed to support it, people in northern climates could enjoy fresh oranges, bananas, lettuce, lemons, tomatoes, etc. nearly year round. Processed beef could be shipped around the continent. And economies of scale would come to impact agriculture the way they had shaped the manufacturing industries.

The cars came about just in time for the fertile growing fields of California to be connected to the rest of the country by rail. In the heartland of the country, cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis became hubs for beef and brewing.

Meat Reefer

Reefers used in meat service were specially equipped and usually owned by the packing company.

In the days before roads and refrigerated trucks became strong competition, railroads not only gathered the harvest for delivery to these large hubs, they also distributed it to individual towns and retailers along the right of way. From big city produce markets to less-than-carload deliveries at small towns and even the daily “milk runs,” the railroad and the reefer fed America.

The reefers themselves became highly specialized to serve specific commodities. The needs of the dressed beef industry for example were very different from fruit growers or even fisheries. And then there were the insulated boxcars preferred by shippers of canned goods and other commodities.


Mechanical reefers replaced the labor-intensive icing process, but the technology wasn’t enough to keep all of the produce on the rails.

Eventually, mechanical refrigeration took the place of ice. Refrigerated trailers replaced the reefers for short-haul deliveries and more. Today, many of the refrigerated shipments by rail are on trailers and containers in intermodal trains. The reefers have not vanished from the scene, but their visibility is greatly reduced.

Today we take the reefer for granted, but the dining options we enjoy every day were luxuries just 150 years ago. While railroads changed our lives in many ways, perhaps none was more profound than at the dinner table.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: