The Florida Railroad Company Inc.
The Fruit Growers Express Company

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The Fruit Growers Express Company was formed March 18, 1920 as the outgrowth of a government antitrust suit against the Armour Packing Company, which had operated a large fleet of refrigerated cars. The Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Norfolk & Western, and New York, New Haven, & Hartford railroads had a proprietary interest in the FGE, which had its headquarters in Washington, DC, and its major shops at Indiana Harbor, IN, Alexandria, VA (Potomac yards), & Jacksonville, FL. It provided service primarily east of the Mississippi River.

1930'S Era 40 ft. Wood Insulated Ice Refrigerator Car

Shipping perishable cargoes placed a great responsibility on the carrier. Like the old home cooler, the railroad had to rely on ice for cooling meats, fruits, and vegetables before the days of the mechanical refrigerator car.

The Fruit Growers Express Company played a role in many cities ice supply as they were the contractor for providing perishable protective service in many areas. The company, known familiarly as "Fruit Growers," was owned by several other railroads. They restocked refrigerator cars with ice. There was an ice bunker at each end of the car into which ice was dropped through a top hatch to protect the perishable lading.

A typical "ice platform track" for loading the early insulated box cars.
Florida Photographic Collection

For some shipments, in below freezing conditions, these cars had alcohol heaters put in to keep perishable loads from freezing. On occasions, some hapless "hobo" would crawl into the ice bunkers by way of the icing hatches on the roof of the cars, to keep warm while bumming the free ride, not knowing it would be their last ride anywhere. Carbon monoxide gas from the alcohol heaters would build up to lethal levels inside the closed car.

There was a complement of many men doing piecework in the yards. They cleaned refrigerator cars ridding them of any debris or even usable wares that remained after a trip. The cars were actually brought empty from various places to be cleaned then returned to the west for new loads. They were made ready for re-icing and loading at any point needed.

The railroads could bring produce in five or six days from California to Baltimore or New York. Bananas and oranges coming from Florida would be loaded with these iced cars for distribution.

There was an inclined conveyor platform with a level length at the top; this enabled men to shovel the ice over into the bunkers to replenish for preserving food that had not yet reached its destination.

When a refrigerator car was emptied of its cargo of meat and/or vegetables, the cars were cleaned locally, then the ice was removed. A man got into the bunker with the ice. When he hand picked the ice to a suitable size, a second man, above, used tongs with a rope on it to remove the ice.

If the car were not cleaned ready to return to the point of origin within a certain time limit, a fine would be imposed by the railroad company. If all the food were not removed, there was a problem: pay the fine or dispose of the food. Many a FGE worker went home with a couple hams, bushel of potatoes, or crate of grapes, if the value of the food was less than the amount of the fine.

Some of the cleaners had almost a second career of selling what they could. The company just wanted the cars clean and ready to pick up and deliver the next load. In addition, these men were responsible for icing cars in transit. To prevent spoilage.

Fruit Growers and its ice house were important parts of the railroad system until about the end of World War II when mechanically refrigerated cars began making an appearance, and the need for icing facilities disappeared.

Ice cooled refrigerator cars were all eventually replaced with mechanical refrigerator cars that used onboard diesel engines powering compressors to provide the cooling or heating for produce and other temperature critical loads.

1950'S Era 50 ft. Steel Insulated Mechanical Refrigerator Car

FEC Picture #005
West India Fruit & Steamship Co. - Mechanical Refrigerator Car. View 1

FEC Picture #006
West India Fruit & Steamship Co. - Mechanical Refrigerator Car. View 2

My father, John A. Leynes Sr., worked for the Fruit Growers Express Company. He began just before WWII in Lakeland Florida, and then in Jacksonville Florida after returning from England. He was a mechanical supervisor and covered most all of the rail yards in Florida and South Georgia, when service was required for the mechanical refrigerator cars. Most summer's, he was assigned to Gafney South Carolina to keep cars in working order for the Peach harvesting season. Later on in his career, this servicing also included the FGE trailers, now know as "Intermodal Freight".

1970'S Era 40 ft. Mechanical Refrigerator Trailer
"Intermodal Freight or TOFC - Trailers On Flat Cars"
These combinations were also called Piggy Back trains.

FGE Photo Collection Page