Fruit Growers Express Company Refrigerator Car No. 35832


Refrigerator cars, or "reefers," had an enormous impact on California's agricultural history. Before refrigerator cars were perfected, most of California's perishable produce could only be sold locally, thereby limiting the state's agricultural potential.

Experiments with refrigerator cars began in the 1860s and by 1872 meat was being shipped successfully within the Eastern states. By 1887 wholesale meat shipping was reliable enough to allow Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Kansas City to become national meat packing centers.

The idea of shipping fruit and vegetables as well as meat, quickly caught on. In 1887 there were 2,200 shipments of citrus from California and by 1893 that number had more than doubled. California growers were no longer restricted to local markets and, as a result, the agricultural industry expanded until California became the number one farm state in America. In 1924 when this refrigerator car was built, more than 150,000 similar cars were in service.

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.

The most successful private refrigerator car company was the Armour Car Lines, including its subsidiary, the Fruit Growers Express. Success led to downfall, for in 1919 the Federal Trade Commission ordered the sale of the produce hauling subsidiary for anti-trust reasons. A group of eastern and southern railroads formed a new Fruit Growers Express Company in 1920 to take over the operations. By 1926 FGE had expanded service into the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest through its partly owned cooperating subsidiaries, Western Fruit Express and Burlington Fruit Express. FGE refrigerator car No. 35832 was built in the Company's Indiana Harbor shops in 1924. It was designated a type RS car which is the Association of American Railroads' abbreviation for a refrigerator car using ice, or ice and salt in combination to cool the load space. The steel-framed wood-sheathed car operated for thirty-eight years in general railroad service until its retirement in 1962.

The car was sold to the Rainier Ice and Cold Storage Company of Seattle, Washington and subsequently purchased by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society for $1,500 in 1973. The Chapter reconditioned the car at a cost of $14,367.51 and donated it to the California State Railroad Museum in 1974.

The Museum restored the reefer to its 1938 appearance to represent a typical refrigerator car of the 1920s to 1940s. Fruit Growers Express Company refrigerator car No. 35832 is displayed in the Museum's Great Hall beside an icing platform. Museum visitors may enter the car, where an audio-visual program tells the story of refrigerator cars and their influence on the development of California's agriculture.