Refrigerator Car, American Car & Foundry, c. 1926-29

#19769 at North Freedom, April 2000.

#19769 and her two sister cars were originally owned and operated by the North Western Refrigerator Line Company (NWX) of Chicago. While their exact built date is unknown, they were most likely constructed by American Car & Foundry between 1926 and 1929, when NWX was adding many new 40 foot reefers to their fleet of over 3,000 cars. #19769 and her sisters worked exclusively in service for the Chicago & North Western Railway, which enjoyed a close working relationship with NWX.

Reefers were designed to haul perishable goods such as meat, dairy products, and beer–virtually any foodstuff that required a cool temperature. The carbody was well insulated and the interior cooled by ice stored in bunkers at either end of the car. The use of salt brine to accelerate the melting of the ice often caused accelerated corrosion of a reefer’s flooring and frame, resulting in frequent rebuildings. Combined with the costly need to re-ice the cars often while in service, made reefers an expensive operation for the railroads.

#19769 and her sister cars were rebuilt in 1959 with new steel carbody ends, steel door openings, and new plug doors. At this time they were painted reefer orange (NWX’s previous scheme was yellow and green). They finished their active career by the 1970’s and became storage cars for Circus World Museum at Baraboo, 7 miles east of North Freedom. In 1989, the cars were deemed surplus, donated to Mid-Continent, and moved to North Freedom. In 1994, #19769 was painted Pullman green and lettered for the Lackawanna Railroad to replicate a milk car for use in filming a promotional program for Steamtown. Today, it is on display, still wearing its movie disguise.

The North Western Refrigerator Line Company was one of the last private reefer companies to be formed. It began operations in 1924 with a fleet of secondhand 36 foot wooden reefers. The old Ringling Brothers Circus railroad car shop at Baraboo, Wisconsin was leased to serve as a car shop. NWX held a close alliance with the C&NW; several NWX officials also held titles at the C&NW. In 1946, North American Car Company purchased NWX. The fleet had shrunk to 2540 cars by this time. All cars continued to carry the NWX reporting marks. During the 1950’s the NWX fleet was extensively rebuilt, with work done at Green Bay, Hudson, and Baraboo. In December 1963, North American closed the Baraboo shops as new mechanical reefers were being purchased and rebuildings were no longer needed. By 1978, only 25 NWX cars were left in service. Six years later, North American was taken over by General Electric Railcar. What few cars remained were stored and soon dismantled.

Sister car #19820, c.1960. Rail Data Services photo, no data; Paul Swanson collection
Sister car #19820, c.1960. Rail Data Services photo, no data; Paul Swanson collection