How Refrigerated Boxcars Created 1880s Boomtowns

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People often point to air conditioning as a technology that enabled cities to develop in warm climates. But before air conditioning, another cooling technology played a major role in the development of both warm weather and remote cities.

Refrigerated boxcars, also known as “reefers”, grew out of the ice trade. One of the most unusual New England exports of the 19th century was ice. Enterprising Yankee businessmen had started the ice trade with the Carolinas and Caribbean to help preserve meat as it was transported. When trains came along, the technology was, as they now say in Silicon Valley, repurposed, for overland rail transport.

Reefers boomed in the 1880s after rails had reached most corners of the country. By 1890, there were 20 times as many refrigerated boxcars operating on U.S. rail lines than there had been just 10 years earlier. Meat and produce that would otherwise spoil over longer journeys could now be sent from cities that were not convenient to the country’s primary axis of growth at the time between Chicago and New York.

Atlanta had one of its most rapid periods of growth in the 1880s as it began sending Georgia peaches north. Los Angeles, where oil hadn’t been discovered yet, had its fastest growth ever in the 1880s, growing nearly five fold to 50,000 people as reefers began hauling its oranges to markets in the East and Midwest. It was a top 60 city by 1890, and a top 20 city by 1900, before any movies were shot there. The growth of reefer-delivered oranges brought people to the city who would later build additional industries to sustain future growth.

Miami would have benefitted in the 1880s from reefers like LA had, but it wasn’t founded until 1896. Transcontinental rail at the time, as it does now, meant east-west, not north-south. As a result, Florida’s rail network developed later than California’s, leaving LA little competition for supplying oranges.

Oranges didn’t need to be picked or packaged differently for rail, they just benefitted from refrigeration because it greatly reduced spoilage. But beef production was entirely transformed. Prior to reefers, live cows were sent from Kansas City, Omaha, and Dallas to population centers further east. While they were growing towns, they were at a major disadvantage being so far from the cities of the east, and had very few cities to their west. But just as reefers allowed distant Los Angeles to boom, they allowed the cities of the Plains to become major beef processing centers, not just transportation points.

As reefers took over cattle and beef shipping, Kansas City, Omaha, and Dallas no longer had to send cows on trains, they could butcher them locally, and then ship this processed beef east on the refrigerated cars. This greatly reduced costs by centralizing beef production, by creating a massive marketplace for buying and selling cows, and by shipping far more edible meat on each train car. This led Kansas City’s and Omaha’s stockyards to rival Chicago’s as the largest in the country, and like LA, both experienced their fastest growth ever in the 1880s. By 1890, both had over 100,000 people and were top 25 cities.

Dallas came very close to having its fastest growing decade in the 1880s, and Fort Worth did. The two cities grew from 17,000 to 60,000 during the 1880s as they too developed as livestock shipping centers. They weren’t quite the size of the Plains cities further north, not having the history Kansas City and Omaha did as gateways to Western trails. Dallas and Fort Worth developed as major stops on north-south cattle trails that would meet up with rail lines in Kansas. And during the 1880s not having to haul cows across two states to hit a train line was still new in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Before reefers, Dallas/Fort Worth, Kansas City and Omaha were the last stops for cows going east and people going west, offering little reason to stay. Los Angeles and Atlanta had fruit and trains, but no way to ship them great distances without spoiling. Refrigerated boxcars lifted all of these places from small, remote towns to booming cities. Reefers are still used today, and the cooling techniques that support them have evolved. These ice houses on wheels were generally overshadowed by more visible household technology advancements, but they played a significant role in growing large cities in what had been inconvenient locations.

Writing about urban economic history, regional economic development, and the bioeconomy. Blog at biotechonomics.com.

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