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Fruit Growers Express refrigerator car number 55667, seen here after its 1988 restoration. ID.87.207.1

August 2005

1924 Fruit Growers Express Refrigerator Car

Refrigerator cars revolutionized the agricultural industry, making it possible for regions with extended growing seasons, such as Florida and California , to market perishable produce to other parts of the country. Farmers in these warmer states had the opportunity to greatly expand their agricultural production, while people in cold climates could enjoy the luxury of year-round fresh fruits and vegetables.


MORE: 1924 Fruit Growers Express Refrigerator Car

Serious experimentation with ice-cooled refrigerated railroad car design began in the 1860s. Much of the early successful use of refrigerator cars focused on shipping meat from Chicago to cities in the eastern United States . By the late 1890s, refrigerated shipping of all kinds of perishable foods by railroad had become big business. In 1924—when this car was built and operated by Fruit Growers Express Company, a pioneer in refrigerator car service—150,000 such cars were in use.

Cooling was provided by ice, loaded through roof hatches into large compartments at each end of the car. Fans, driven by the car’s axles, helped to circulate the cool air. After earlier experimentation with various kinds of insulating materials such as sawdust, charcoal, paper and rubber sheeting, the ideal solution turned out to be dry air trapped in fibrous material. Refrigerator cars were lined with mats of felted flax or cattle hair, sandwiched into the floor and walls of the car.

Yet, these carefully-designed cars were only as good as the infrastructure that supported them. A nationwide network of refrigerator car company-owned ice-making and ice-loading facilities provided the necessary ice (a car of this type can melt 45-55 pounds of ice per hour—more in very hot weather). Careful coordination of transportation schedules and manpower was also needed. Trains had to be able to reach icing stations in a timely manner; labor had to be available to move the food quickly to market once it reached its destination. The necessarily-strict schedules were such that the special all-refrigerator car trains usually received priority over other railroad traffic so that their perishable cargoes would not be spoiled.

The rise of mechanically-cooled refrigerator trucks began to seriously erode rail-transported perishable goods in the years following World War II. This Fruit Growers Express refrigerator railcar remained in service until 1971.

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