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Refrigerated Railroad Cars Revolutionize Meat Industry

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Historical reproductions by Dick Perue

A couple weeks ago, an advertisement in a 1918 weekly newspaper prompted a search concerning slaughterhouses and transportation of fresh meat. The following are excerpts from what I’ve found, so far, on the subject. 

Until after the Civil War, fresh meat was not available except at slaughtering time, which usually took place during the winter months. People mainly ate cured pork. 

By the 1870s, centrally located Chicago became the hub of the meatpacking industry. Companies there used the railroads to deliver cattle and hogs from the West to their facilities. They invested in cold storage houses, which held ice from the Great Lakes to run their businesses year-round.

In the 1880s, the widespread use of refrigerated railroad cars by Chicago meatpackers made it possible to ship fresh meat, especially beef, not only to large urban areas but also to small towns across the nation including towns in Wyoming. Gustavus Swift led the industry in shipping fresh beef.

In 1878, Swift, the founder of the Chicago meatpacking company called Swift and Company, commissioned the designing of a new kind of freight car to carry butchered meat. The boxcar used large blocks of ice which, when deposited through roof hatches, would chill meat products below. 

The floor was covered by raised panels, which could be lifted to clean out condensation and droppings from the transported meat. The car also had wooden bars running the length of the ceiling which were used to hang dressed meats and carcasses. 

To keep the cold in, the boxcars closed with 10-foot wide plug doors which lock into place with a complicated system of rollers, hinges and latches.

While these were unpopular with railroads, who had invested significantly in stock cars to transport live animals, the refrigerator boxcar quickly caught on nationwide. By the 1920s, the Swift Refrigerator Line had over 7,000 reefer cars on rails across North America.

In the latter half of the 20th century, mechanical refrigeration began to replace ice-based systems. Soon after, mechanical refrigeration units replaced the armies of personnel required to re-ice the cars. 

But, then, we’ll keep this on ice until we write again.

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