Refrigerated Rail Cars
In one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, there is a passage relating the author’s first encounter with an orange, a novel experience in frontier America.The issue was that transportation of most food stuffs at that point had to be done via dry goods or those preserved in salt as mass canning was not yet available and transporting food stuffs for long distances could often result in more rot than product delivered to the end user It is then with this in mind that we must consider the invention or refrigerated rail cars and later refrigerated trucks as one technology breakpoint for the food industry.
Others would include mass canning techniques and the development of safer workplace technology, but perhaps the biggest impact on the American diet and the food distribution industry.With the invention and widespread use of refrigeration techniques, production of agricultural goods could skyrocket and spoilage was reduced to a minimum.
With that in mind, we will examine the direct impact of refrigeration on the ability to transport food without spoilage before reaching market. No longer were small farms growing enough produce for their local community necessary.
Suddenly, large agricultural concerns in California could meet the nation’s demand for many types of fresh produce and do it at a cost that undercut many local farmers. This technological breakpoint changed the way America ate and the very basics of the country’s economy. In this case, the technological breakpoint was almost 150 years ago, but the product continued to improve from there to the refrigerated trucks that are in common use today. Though many improvements have been made to the technology since the breakpoint,
In frontier America, as discussed by Wilder, food stuffs that could be transported were either those that could be dried (like pinto beans), root vegetables that travelled well even during extreme temperatures (like potatoes and turnips), or foods that could be preserved in some manner, usually by drying or salting. Fresh vegetables and most fruits had to be raised locally of they simply weren’t available. As the country became more mechanized, railroads were used to ship fruits and vegetables to the frontier, but they still had a very limited shelf life.
And, the Rocky Mountains were a huge barrier. Though there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables raised in California, most of it would rot before it could be shipped east over the mountains (California State Railroad Museum). Until the Civil War, the high inland valleys of Colorado produced some vegetables for consumption on the east coast as the loss due to rot was significantly less when the trains did not have to cross the Rockies (South Fork Town History 2007). But it was an intrastate transporter that first saw the potential to improve his bottom line with technology.
“To Parker Earle, an enterprising fruit grower of Cobden, Ill. , goes the credit for pioneering in this development. After several unsuccessful efforts to ship strawberries to Chicago without their spoiling on the way, Mr. Earle hit upon an idea. During the winter of 1865-66 he harvested a large quantity of ice, and he packed the ice in sawdust in his barn so it would keep well into the summer. Then he built several large wooden chests with double linings. Each chest was fitted with two compartments. When the berry-picking season arrived Mr.
Earle packed one compartment of each chest with ice and the other compartment with strawberries. ” (Catskill Archive 2007). This system of icing the product to create early refrigeration then expanded from Chicago to the rest of the country. “It was only a step from the iced chest to the iced box car, and Parker Earle was one of the pioneers in this venture also. By 1872 many carloads of strawberries and other fruits were being shipped from southern Illinois to Chicago under refrigeration. In 1885 berries from Virginia were shipped to New York under refrigeration.
Three years later Florida oranges entered the New York market, and in 1889 New York received its first carload of deciduous fruit from California. ” (Catskill archive 2007) The immediate advantages of the icing system were obvious. Earle’s berries got to the market days before the local crop was ready and earned him as much as $1 a quart, making it a very profitable year. But at least initially, the railroads were not willing to invest in the icing technology required to promote this new development on a large scale. For the trip from Cobden to Chicago, about 300 miles, icing at the point of origin was sufficient.
But for longer distances, the railroad would have to create “icing stations” where the melted ice could be replaced. Many were initially resistant, not seeing the enormous profit potential from the investment (California Rail History Museum 2007). “Refrigerator cars could not operate efficiently without an elaborate support system. Icing stations had to be located at regular intervals, railroad scheduling had to be reliable so that trains would reach the icing stations before the ice melted, and a dependable marketing system had to be in operation so that the most perishable produce would not rot on the loading docks.
Most railroads were slow to recognize the significant profit to be made with refrigerator cars. Initially, private companies owned the reefers and contracted with the railroads to haul them, operating “fruit blocks,” special trains consisting entirely of refrigerator cars carrying perishables. These trains were given priority over most other traffic. Eventually most railroads purchased their own refrigerator cars or formed refrigerator car subsidiaries with other railroads” (California Rail History Museum 2007).
The development had spinoff effects on the marketplace as well. In California, when railroads initially resisted developing icing stations and buying their own refrigerated cars, local fruit growers banded together to form a fruit growers cooperative and integrate their business vertically, handling their own shipping with cars owned by the fruit growers association (Powell 1910). And, the impact was solely on fruit and vegetable production. In Chicago, local shipping officials saw the implications of Earle’s idea and quickly applied it to the meat-packing industry.
Where once cattle had to be transported on the hoof to major markets, requiring a slaughter house in every major city, the ability to ice their meat and send it out to the rest of the country ‘s cemented Chicago’s place as meatpacker to the country (Hill 1923). “By 1887 wholesale meat shipping was reliable enough to allow Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Kansas City to become national meat packing centers. ” (California Rail History 2007) As the centers for the nation’s railroads, Kansas City and Chicago were perfect for the developing meat industry once the refrigeration issue was solved.
Both were close to prime livestock country, preventing the need for the long, old-fashioned cattle drives or having to transport the stock via rail to the market, thus driving up costs for the producer. In short, the advent of the refrigerated car made meat a much more accessible and affordable part of the diet for American city dwellers (Crossley 1976). Where previous only persons in rural areas where they could raise their own livestock had plentiful access to beef and pork, the development of the refrigerated car made meat more affordable for everyone.
What once had been an expensive treat was now as close as the neighborhood butcher shop. This development also probably contributed to the industrialization after the turn of the century. Previous to the advent of the refrigerated car, a city’s development was limited by the physical constraints of producing enough food to feed the city’s inhabitants. With the ability to safely transport food across the country, city dwellers could be assured of having access to the same foods as those who had lived in rural America and have the economic and cultural benefits of the city.
This availability, combined with the agricultural proficiency of some regions of the country, helped lead to the beginning of the decline of the traditional family farm. Because fruit growers in California were so proficient at their jobs, coupled with the use of low-cost migrant labor, the development of refrigeration had a huge impact on the way America eats. According to one study in the 1950s, the widespread availability of refrigeration decreased the amount of grains and potatoes that the average family consumed, products that would have been readily in the pre-refrigeration era.
Post-refrigeration, people consumed more eggs, milk, meat and fruits and vegetables (Chaney 1957). This information is not meant to imply that the development of transportation ceased after Earle’s first experiment with adding ice to shipped strawberries, but other developments were simply refinements to the technology. By 1900, some meat packers were using a form of mechanized refrigeration and by 1914 most railcars for meat shipments were also refrigerated via mechanical means instead of ice (Hill 1914).
By the middle of the century, tractor-trailers with refrigerated compartments would hit the roads and some of the food transport would move from rail to highway (Crossley 1976). But even more than 140 years after Earle’s ice experiment, most of the internal transportation of food within the United States is done by refrigerated rail car. ” Of more than 35,000 carloads of fresh fruits and vegetables received in Boston in 1939, 10,456, or 35 per cent, came from California; 8,224 carloads, or 23 per cent, came from Florida, and 1,925 carloads, or 6 per cent, came from Texas.
Thus, approximately two out of every three carloads came from these three distant states. ” (Catskill Archive 2007). As recently as 2004, Congress enacted legislation to attempt to make the rail transportation of food stuffs more sanitary, blaming the transportation for recent outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli (AllBusiness. com 2004). “To provide the American people with year-round, nation-wide service in the transportation of perishable products, the railroads operate a fleet of 145,000 refrigerator cars. Assembled in a single train, these cars would reach 1,194 miles across the country. ” (Catskill archive 2007).
Though we often disregard the nation’s railways as a means of transportation, the development of the food industry proves that the use of the railway can be vital to the development of an industry. It is imperative that we learn the lesson of the refrigerated rail car and realize that technology does not necessarily have to be cutting edge to have a major impact on the lifestyle we choose to lead. After all, though a cutting edge iPhone may be all the rage, eggs and bacon for breakfast will help get the day off to a good start. The technology needed for breakfast is much more complicated, and older, than we might have imagined. Works Cited
California Rail History Museum, <http://www. csrmf. org/doc. asp? id=185>, Access December 18, 2007. Chaney, Margaret S. “The Role of Science in Today’s Food” Marriage and Family Living, Vol. 19, No. 2, Health and Family Welfare. (May, 1957), pp. 142-149. City of South Fork, Colorado, “City History” <http://www. southforkcolorado. org/history. php>, Accessed December 18, 2007. Crossley, J. C. “Processing “Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No. 1. (Mar. , 1976), pp. 60-75. Hill, Howard Copeland. “The Development of Chicago as a Center of the Meat Packing Industry” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol.
10, No. 3. (Dec. , 1923), pp. 253-273. “Loading Spinach into a Refrigerator Car”, Catskill Archive, <http://www. catskillarchive. com/rrextra/reefer. Html>, Access December 18, 2007. Powell, Fred Wilbur. “Co-operative Marketing of California Fresh Fruit”The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 24, No. 2. (Feb. , 1910), pp. 392-418. “Senate Bill seeks to Regulate Sanitary Transportation of Food” < http://www. allbusiness. com/refrigeration/20041119/4455016-1. html>, Accessed December 19, 2007. Appendix 1 From the Catskill Archive: Loading spinach into a “reefer”, a refrigerated rail car.