Over their long history, railroads have helped carry just about everything – including Thanksgiving dinner. The shipment of cattle and livestock is well-known, as is the traditional image of the slat-sided “cattle car” used to haul a great variety of animals to market. Poultry on the other hand was less common and required even more specialized equipment. So with Thanksgiving nearly upon us, what better time to look at the turkey – train connection?
Like other specialized cars, the origins of the poultry car date back to the late 19th Century. William Jenkins, a traveling freight agent for the Erie, and James Streeter, an Indiana poultry dealer, received the first patent for a live poultry car in 1884. By this time, Streeter’s business was already shipping 30,000 dozen eggs and 15,000 lbs of dressed chicken from Muncie to New York City weekly. The growing trade of refrigerated transportation by rail was already revolutionizing America. But Jenkins and Streeter saw an ongoing need for fresh chicken and other fowl which could only be met by live transport.
Previous attempts at shipping chickens and other birds by rail involved packing the live birds in small crates and shipping them aboard boxcars. Many did not survive the trip and those that did were emaciated and undesirable. Jenkins and Streeter’s new design put the lives and comfort of the birds as top priority.
The small compartments were retained (128 of them), but now were built against exterior walls lined with screen to let in fresh air. The boxes were also sloped towards the outside of the car as a “self cleaning” feature. A single car could carry up to 1,400 turkeys – and even greater numbers of smaller fowl. The floors of the individual coops could be adjusted depending on the size of the bird. Chickens, turkeys, geese, even pigeons were all transported in these cars along with many other birds.
An isle ran down the center of the car, and in the middle of all of the cages was a small room for the traveling attendant who rode with the car to market. The attendant was responsible for seeing that the birds were watered (a 750 gallon tank was located on the roof) and fed. Feed was stored in a compartment beneath the floor of the carman’s room. Final feeding would be done shortly before arrival to fatten the birds as much as possible for market.
The attendant’s quarters included a small bunk, but one has to wonder how he ever got any sleep amid the constant noise and smell of more than 1000 birds being jostled about. The poultry cars were often called “cackle cars” with good reason. There are reports of boosting the car’s capacity by stacking an additional twelve coops inside the stateroom. This could increase the payload by as much as 432 chickens and one very irate attendant.
To ensure adequate air flow through the car, small vent doors were placed in the ends. Early cars had a clerestory roof like passenger cars. Later, this was replaced by a hinged running board on the roof which could be swung open to reveal a 27″ wide slot the length of the car. One has to pity the brakeman who walked the roofs of a freight train at night… Muslin curtains were also used on the outside of the car sides during the winter to help keep some warmth in. All of these vents and curtains were handled by the attendant.
By the 1920s, the Live Poultry Transit Company had a fleet of over 2,000 cars in operation in the U.S. New York City was the destination for more than 60% of this traffic, owing in part to a large Orthodox Jewish population whose dietary restrictions required Kosher meat freshly slaughtered by a Schochtim. During the holiday season, 60 to 80 cars arrived in Manhattan daily.
In an effort to promote new business along its line, in 1920 the Rock Island assembled a “Nebraska Poultry Special” – a forty car train which included a full-size poultry house on a flatcar, 72,000 live chickens and other special exhibits and lectures. These fowl were premium loads at premium prices for the railroads – which more than offset the extra troubles in their handling.
Turkeys were less accommodating to travel. By the 1920s, while the railroads rushed to “put a chicken in every pot,” most had given up on live turkey movements. The Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey was shipped already dressed in a reefer.
At around its peak in 1928, 51% of America’s poultry traveled by rail. Following the Depression and WWII, the rise of motor carrier trucking quickly ate into this market. During the 1940s, with full carload shipments in rapid decline, some composite half poultry / half reefer cars emerged. (Similar prototypes had been tried in the 1890s as well.)
By the 1950, 15 cars remained in the roster of the Poultry Transit Company – the last in the corporate lineage of carriers – and the last official shipment came in 1956. Some paltry poultry shipments may have continued through the express services like Railway Express Agency, but these would not have ridden in dedicated cars.
Only one poultry car is known to survive today; PTCX 423 is preserved at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation. After retirement from rail service, it remained in use as a stationary coop until 1986 when it was finally acquired by the Museum.
Surprisingly little has been recorded about this interesting venture. For more information on railroad poultry cars, see the primary source of information for this article, “Home to Roost: The Story of Live Poultry Transit by Rail” by John H. White, Jr published in Agricultural History, Vol. 63 No. 3 Summer 1989 by the Agricultural Historical Society. Another great article can be found on the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum’s website, “Turkeys & Trains” by Bob Barcus.