Kevin’ Komments 11/15/2021

Reefers, Ice, Icing & icing platforms.

On our club layout, we have a meatpacking plant located with an icing facility nearby. Back when we were designing and building the plan, Tom did some research into icing – passed it on to me, and then I did further research into icing reefers for a facility like our meatpacking plant. Since then, the process of keeping perishables cool during rail transportation has always captured my focus. I thought it would be nice to review and update the past research.

In my recent trip to the west coast, we traveled through San Bernadino.  So, this pic of  the AT&SF icing platform in San Bernardino, CA caught my attention.  The photo was taken by Jack Delano in 1943.  You can see the slot in the center of the platform where a conveyor slid ice blocks from the ice house to loaders on the platform.  The blocks were pulled off the conveyor slot and either broken into chunks or loaded as whole blocks into the ice bunker of the reefers.

This is the interior of a reefer showing the ice bunker at the end of the car.  You can see where there was ventilation coming out at the top of the bunker, but there was also typically a ventilation space below the floor boards leading to the end bunkers.

…And of course, a nice pic of the exterior of a line of MDT wood reefers with the Chicago skyline from Water Street in the back ground.  Chicago was famous for it’s stockyards and the large meatpacking facilities.  It’s highly likely that these reefers are brine reefers used for transporting meats.  Meatpacking required brine to keep the temperature much lower than typical of an industry like the transport of fruits and vegetables.  Salt was added to crushed ice in ratios that could control the temperature within two degrees Fahrenheit.

But where did the ice come from? In the days before refrigeration could generate it, ice was harvested during the winter months off of lakes in northern regions. Here we see harvesting ice on Lake Minnetonka, Excelsior, Minn.

The ice blocks were cut from the lake with large saws. This pic is from the Ottawa River, Ottawa, ON, circa 1900-1910.

…ice saws:

The blocks were then floated to a conveyer or slide where they were slid out of the water.

The ice was then stored in ice houses – large open barn like structures. The ice was stacked sometimes a few stories high. Sawdust was used as insulation around the perimeter. After the ice house was packed with ice, it was able to maintain temperature through the summer months. I tried to find some good pics of ice houses – but alas, it’ll have to wait until next time.

Once the railroads began transporting perishables by rail, the ice was also distributed across the rail system by…reefers.  The caption on this pick says, “Ice delivery to the point of use. PFE Wood sided Reefer 29721.”  While I interpret that as ice being delivered either to the reefer, or by the reefer – Those look like vegetable crates to me.  This is probably a photo of perishables being loaded into an iced reefer.  Great old delivery truck!

With the railroad distributing the ice across the country, scenes like this were realized:  Ice is being loaded into reefers in Tucson, AZ, 1881.  It looks like stock pens beyond the icing platform – this was probably a large stockyard and meatpacking plant in Tucson.  Check out the size of the ice blocks!

Once ice was distributed across the country, local industries were formed. Here the Woolley Coal Co. decided to take up cooling with the distribution of ice. “Woolley Coal Co.” – that’s almost as good a name as “Heeter Coal” (our prototype coal distributor in Lewisburg)!

This is a little later photo – a 1938 ice wagon in Crowley Louisiana. Look at the trail of water around the rear wheel – And the deliver’s pants are soaked from the thigh down.

I found this great photo of an old ice delivery truck (Ford?) in LA, 1920.  In the late 1850s, in LA, saloons imported the town’s first commercially available ice, which rarely occurs naturally in Los Angeles!  As the desire for ice increased, local (LA) ice concerns eventually merged to form a monopoly, the Union Ice Company.

…A row of delivery trucks for City Ice, 1935. When I looked up City Ice, I first found a local company in Englewood, Colorado. But it seems there are quite a few “City Ice” companies across the US.

Getting back to the railroads, the advent of reefers and distributed ice allowed the fruit growers of California to distribute their crops across the country.  In this pic, workers load ice blocks into the end bunkers of refrigerator cars at the large ice dock at Roseville, Calif., on the Southern Pacific in 1948, aJim Morley photo. 

This photo captures a lot of detail in the process of icing the reefers.  Note the ramp boards that hinge down from the platform to allow access to the hatches in the roof of the reefers.  The man on the left has the pick called a pike pole that is used to slide the ice in place.  The man on the right is striking the block with the forked pick to break it into chunks for the bunker.  My sources claim that these icers could strike a block with one strike, and transform the entire block to chunks of a desired size from several inches across to almost as small as crushed ice – with relative precision.

Also, the entire process wasn’t as simple as loading the ice bunker, then sending the reefer off to be loaded with perishables.  First, the reefers had to be cleaned.  A pair of workers with steam hoses could clean the interior of a reefer in around 2 minutes.  Then, you couldn’t load a reefer that had been sitting in the sun (especially in southern CA) with ice and expect a large portion of the ice to last for a while.  The reefers would be pre-cooled by blowing cold air from the ice house through the interior for a few hours.  Then the first ice loading could occur.  This pic shows ice block loading in the 1930’s.

Once the first icing was completed, the reefer could be sent to be loaded with the perishables.

In this icing platform pic, you can see the multi-story ice house behind. The wagons on the platform were used to create a brine mix. A block of ice was slid into the wagon, struck to create the desired ice chunks, and then the desired amount of salt was mixed in based on the requested temperature. The wagon could then be wheeled to the loading chute (seen in the distance) and the mix dumped into the ice bunker.

After the perishables were loaded into the reefer, the reefer was sent back to the icing platform to be re-iced. I always want to use the term “topped-off”, but that has a reference to a different meaning in the icing industry – which we will cover shortly.

Here’s another pic of the creation of brine. A worker shovels salt into a reefer via a rolling chute at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s icing dock in Denver in 1949. In this pic, you can see the conveyor chain on the platform at right that carries block ice along the platform; this is an Earl Cochran photo. Usually a heavy brine mix meant the load was meats. With a brine mix, you could lower the temperature of the reefer to as low as around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. (A 30% salt to 70% ice can produce a temperature of -6 degrees.) With fruits and vegetables you wanted the temperature above freezing, so much less salt was used.

Typical icing had to re-occur around every 24 hours.  But with a heavy brine mixture, the ice would melt faster and require re-icing more often.  Data I found claimed that a (6) man crew could typically ice a reefer in 90 seconds!

The California growers had an additional problem to cooling the reefers.  The reefers had to travel out of the hot California central valley, and over the Sierra Nevada mountains where temperatures might fall below freezing.  The reefers contained small oil heaters which would heat the interior when temperatures threatened to drop too low.

Here PFE reefer 90225 is loaded with ice.  This reefer has an old UP shield on it’s side.  Pacific Fruit Express was a joint venture between the UP and SP to provide reefers and icing facilities for the two railroads.  Most of the reefer companies were similar conglomerates.  PFE was created in the early 1900’s and lasted until 1978.  Railroads would contract with a company that would provide the reefers and icing services needed across the railroad’s lines.

So…”Topping-off” or “topping ice” – These are terms used for putting a blanket of crushed ice over the crates in the reefer.  Below is a photo of a top icing machine for top icing reefers, circa 1952.  It takes in blocks of ice, crushes them, then directs a high velocity jet of crushed ice into the car until a thick blanket encloses the tiers of crates or boxes in the car. 

Since some vegetables will get freezer burned if directly touching the ice, a technique was developed for putting a layer of iceberg lettuce between the sensitive vegetables and the topping ice.  Iceberg lettuce is pretty much a zero in regards to nutrition, but it’s easy to grow.  And, it’s resistant to freezer burn when in contact with ice.  Using it as packing material gave it a purpose for the CA packers.  When the grocers in the east and mid-west received the shipments, they put the iceberg lettuce on their shelves as a salad base – might as well get some additional value out of it!  And still today, we use iceberg lettuce as a main staple in salads.

As we move into the middle of the 20th century, more advanced icing equipment was developed.  Below is a larger dock-type car icer.  These were self-propelled machines that traveled on rails on the raised icing platforms, to service lines of reefer cars on either side of the dock.

 It was designed to do both bunker-icing and bunker-salting in one operation. It could also be equipped with a crusher slinger to do top icing independently of bunker-icing.  Movements of the machine and starting and stopping of the dock conveyor were under the control of one operator stationed on the machine.

Here are a few shots of these icing machines. This is a Santa Fe icing facility.

Here is a string of PFE ice reefers being loaded from a mechanical icing machine at the Union Ice Company plant, Oxnard CA.

Once the reefers hit the road, some were dropped at depots for local grocers and butchers to pick up there shipments. If a reefer needed re-icing when at a location inconvenient to the large icing platforms, the local depots and ice houses had to find a way to re-ice. Here’s an interesting attachment to a fork lift for icing reefers:

Check out this larger truck. And you thought devices like these were designed by the airlines!

Here, a Denver ice company provides a truck for re-top-icing.

Eventually, mechanical refrigeration made it’s way to the reefers making the icing platforms obsolete.  The first mechanical reefers hit the rails in 1951.  But, icing platforms were still used for reefers up until the early ‘70s.  Here’s a refrigerated boxcar, PFE 10591 in Sacramento. 

Once the large reefer trains were broken up for local distribution, the reefers were typically kept at the front of the train.  Here, ice reefers can be seen on the head end, as was normal; this allowed easy switching to and from icing platforms. The reefers are followed by half a dozen double door boxcars.  This is New Haven Class L-1 #3203 on a Cedar Hill to Maybrook freight below Newtown, Connecticut on April 11, 1947, photo by Kent Cochrane

Nearing the completion of the story, we had to show Union Pacific Big Boy 4004 pulling alongside the Pacific Fruit Express icing platform at Laramie, Wyo., mid-1950s. Conveyors have pulled the ice blocks into position for the train’s arrival. (Can we model this on our next layout? – A Big Boy at an icing platform?)

…and re-icing an FGE reefer with crushed ice (Wikipedia photo).

and finally, icing refrigerator cars for shipment of strawberries, Hammond, Louisiana, April 1939.

There is a long and interesting history surrounding the reefers and icing facilities.  During this research, I stumbled upon a website just on the harvesting of ice from the frozen lakes: .  Even though I’ve been researching icing for almost a decade, this site was new for me.  There’s also a couple of great Kalmbach books in their guide to industries series:  one on produce traffic, and one on livestock and meatpacking.  I could run several of these pic collections on this topic – but we’ll wait awhile and maybe visit this topic again in the distant future.



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