D&RGW 30-Foot Refrigerator Car History

by Forrest Stone

With the end of the Civil War, industry flooded the nation. Steam power coursed through the steel veins of the extending railroad network, and then surged into the twentieth century with powerful gusto. America’s widespread cultural landscape became more interconnected with each advancement in rail transportation, and each hub from east to west was soon tethered within one massive web. Suddenly everyone and everything was traveling by rail. But even so, there was an initial struggle to transport perishable merchandise without it spoiling. New methods for solving this problem were being developed, and a certain type of boxcar was becoming easily the coolest new thing on the railroading scene.

D&RGW Refrigerator Car No. 55 Prototype

D&RGW 30-Foot Refrigerator Car in Chama, New Mexico. Photo by Jerry Day.

Refrigerator cars, also called “reefers,” were first introduced during the mid-nineteenth century, though they were merely uninsulated, ice-filled boxcars. New techniques for insulating boxcars were developed to make all-season refrigeration possible by the turn of the century. Icing the interiors of refrigerator cars protected cargo from heat during summers, and heaters were installed to prevent freezing each winter.

The first Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) refrigerator cars were introduced in 1881, and all were taken out of service prior to 1908 – the year that an additional fifty 30-foot “short reefers” were built at the Burnham Shops in Denver. The D&RG painted the 1908 cars Boxcar Red and built them slightly narrower than the original cars from 1881. Costing $867 each, they were numbered 32-81 and featured 20-ton, 4’ 8” Arch bar trucks with inside-hung brake shoes to prevent them from freezing due to the water dripping from the ice bunkers. With the exception of No. 79, which burned in 1923, these initial refrigerator cars were in service until 1926.

In 1926, Nos. 44, 58, 61, 62, 66, 71, 75, 80, and 81 were retired, and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad rebuilt the remaining forty. By July 31, 1926, they equipped new needle beams, corrugated Murphy roofs, draft gear, icebox bulkheads, insulation, flooring, truck and bolster bearings, post and side braces, and cast coupler pockets. From the 1908 Boxcar Red, they were repainted American Refrigerator Transit (ART) Yellow with Boxcar Red roofs and ends. Fresh produce and other prone-to-rot provisions were consistently refrigerated in these forty cars for more than a decade after 1926. 30-foot refrigerator cars were even used to insulate dynamite and other explosives from frozen winters and allowed the powder monkeys in Silverton to keep mining throughout the season.

All forty of the 1926-version refrigerator cars were in service until February 28, 1942, when Nos. 32, 33, and 41 were sold to the U.S. Navy. Next was No. 37, decommissioned on December 31, 1948 after it was wrecked in Silverton. Though the D&RGW 30-foot reefer had begun to deteriorate already, they were never considered obsolete until around 1950. Alfred E. Perlman, the railroad executive at the time, ushered in an era deeming all consistently inactive railcars a surplus. It was during this period that the remaining 30-foot refrigerator cars were eventually made redundant by Perlman and the frozen-food industry that characterized the 1950s.

Nos. 38, 42, 50, 59, 63, 64, 70, and 73 were selected by the Car Department, and subsequently retired on December 31, 1951. Bob Richardson of the Colorado Railroad Museum and the Alamosa Narrow Gauge Motel even photographed No. 59 being pulled off its trucks by a tractor in the D&RGW’s Alamosa Pickler Yard. A year later on December 31, Nos. 49, 51, 52, 56, 60, 65, 67, and 76 were taken out of service. Nos. 47 and 69 were then retired during 1953. After it burned in a car shop fire, No. 40 was written off in January; 1954 and Nos. 53 and 57 were dismantled and decommissioned later that year. No. 77 was retired next in 1956. In 1957, Nos. 34, 36, 39, 43, 46, 54, 55, 72, and 74 were discharged in January, and Nos. 35 and 45 survived until December 31. The two remaining D&RGW 30-foot refrigerator cars were retired in April 1958, marking the end of their short-lived, though critical utility in rail history.

During the latter half of the twentieth century and into the modern age, mechanical refrigeration overtook the otherwise inefficient methods that still relied on icing.

Today, two of the fifty original D&RGW 30-foot refrigerator cars can be visited, and two more are undergoing restoration as of October 2015. No. 45 is preserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado, and No. 55 has been extensively restored by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico, after it was found at the Center, Colorado, airport in 1990 being used as a storage unit. In 2014, two of the cars -- Nos. 39 and 54 -- were found as storage units in Monte Vista, Colorado. The Durango Railroad Historical Society purchased and moved the cars to Durango to undergo restoration. Since these cars were housed in an outbuilding, the Blackstone Models product development team was able to obtain paint chips from the prototypes to accurately match the iconic ART Yellow coloring.


During the creation of this document, we received input and material from a variety of people and places. We’d like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following:

“A Century + Ten of D&RGW Narrow Gauge Freight Cars, 1871 to 1981” by Robert E. Sloan

Historical notes courtesy of Steve Swanson, Idaho Springs, Colorado

© 2015 by Blackstone Models.