If you’ve ever ridden Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Albany, you may have noticed wooded areas laced with stone fences.  In colonial days, these rocky woods were farmland, but when railroads began bringing produce from fertile lands to the west, the farms were abandoned.  Before the arrival of the railroads, food was strictly a local affair and many had gone their entire lives without ever tasting fruits like bananas or oranges.

   The first refrigerator cars were cooled with ice.  In the nineteenth century, ice was harvested from ponds and stored for use throughout the year.  The first half of the twentieth century brought mechanical refrigeration to produce ice, while the second half of the twentieth century saw mechanical refrigeration installed directly into the cars.

   Because of their specialized nature, refrigerator cars, like tank cars, tended to be owned by non-railroad entities which would lease them to shippers.  The leasing companies soon realized that extra revenue could be earned by placing advertisements on their refrigerator cars.  However, shippers complained about receiving cars decorated with ads for competitor’s products, and laws were passed curbing the “billboard era” in the late thirties.

   Reefers remained plain through the forties, but the fifties brought about a renaissance of colorful reefers by the meat packing industry.   After years of early experimentation, construction of mechanical refrigerators began in earnest in the late fifties.  They were essential for handling the growing frozen food trade, which could not be shipped reliably in ice reefers.  As mechanical reefers proliferated, expensive icing facilities were eliminated, the last closing about 1972.


   Refrigerator cars can be divided into three broad categories: those cooled by ice, those cooled mechanically and insulated cars.  The AAR has the following classifications:

Type RS- A car equipped with ice bunkers, which are normally located at both ends.  When equipped with meat rails they are classified as type RSM.  Construction of new ice reefers ended in the late fifties, and by the early seventies, railroads had dismantled their icing facilities.

Type RA- A car equipped with brine tanks designed for the combined use of ice and salt.  The addition of salt to the ice lowered the temperature, but increased melting, requiring more frequent icing.  Used primarily by the meat packing industry, cars equipped with meat rails are classified as type RAM.

TYPE RP- A car equipped with mechanical apparatus for cooling or heating the car.  They can be equipped with meat rails (RPM) or loading devices (RPL).  

TYPE RB- An insulated car with no means of cooling.  They protect the lading from temperature extremes, and are primarily used for processed foods such as canned goods or beer.  When equipped with loading devices, they are classified as type RBL.  For modelers, these are usually considered plug-door boxcars.

  Refrigerator cars were also used to keep lading from freezing in the winter, and some were equipped with various types of heaters.   Cars with heaters added an “H” to their class designation; for example a type RS with heaters became type RSH.

36' wood RS.jpg



Though 36’ reefers were no longer used for shipping produce in the post-war years, they were still in use by meat packers.  Presumably this was because the smaller volume would stay cold longer, reducing the chance of spoilage.  I’ve also read that the doors at many meat packing plants were spaced for 36’ cars.  The colorful “billboard reefer era” ended in 1937, and reefer became as plain as other freight cars.  By the late forties however, meat packers began painting increasingly colorful logos on their reefers.  The large fleets of 36’ reefers dwindled rapidly through the fifties, but a few made it to the end of ice refrigerator operation.

  Roundhouse was the first to offer a 36’ reefer in N-scale, which is now produced by Athearn.  Micro-Trains also offers this body style, and like the Roundhouse/Athearn mode,l it is offered in an “old time” version with truss rods as well as a later version with a steel underframe.  While the aforementioned manufacturers produced a wide variety of colorful billboard era schemes, post-war offerings were relatively few.  Rapido Trains changed that with their recent release of a 37’ reefer.  It is a model of a reefer built by General American in the late thirties, and features a modern hand brake.  Rapido offers a variety of pre- and post-war schemes, and though most of the pre-war schemes were probably gone by the post-war period, I’ve included them in the chart.

   The chart below includes reefers with an outside length between 36 to 39 feet. This is a more of a generic chart, and some 40’ reefers are stand-ins for 36’ cars. But.   The models should resemble most of the prototypes, though a few were modified with steel ends or roofs.  Swift even owned a series of all-steel 36’ reefers, which are not included in the chart below.  Dry transfers for schemes marked with an asterisk in the ROAD column are available from Clover House. Cars that likely differ significantly from the model are listed below:

DUBUQUE- The reporting marks on Roundhouse 86803 are mixed up; they read UTRX instead of URTX.

MATHEISON DRY ICE- Athearn 11554 represents one of several series of type LRC 40’ refrigerators leased from National Car Company for transporting dry ice.

OSCAR MAYER- The reporting marks on Roundhouse 86802 are mixed up; they read UTRX instead of URTX.  The Rapido 521903 includes an Oscar Mayer reefer with a white band across the car; I couldn’t find a photo with a legible built date.

ST. LOUIS CAR COMPANY- The St. Louis Refrigerator Car Company was organized by Anheuser-Busch.  It owned only type RB refrigerator cars, so Roundhouse 86805 would  be used for hauling Budweiser beer.


SWIFT- The reefers with SRLX reporting marks were owned by General American Car Company.  Despite its popularity as a model, little information is available for the “Buy War Bonds” scheme.  I’m guessing that only a few cars were painted in this scheme, and it’s doubtful that they survived for long after the war.

36' wood reefer chart.png
40' wood RS.jpg





      Several 40’ wood reefer models are available in N scale.  Many carry schemes offered are from the billboard era, and though popular, these colorful schemes are outside the scope of this website.


   Micro-Trains offers two variations of wood reefer; the 47000 series has a modern handbrake while the 49000 series features a vertical brakewheel.  Both are models of cars with wooden ends and roof and most include a fishbelly underframe.   Like the Micro-Trains 49000 series, both the Atlas and Arnold Rapido models feature an all-wood body with vertical brakewheel and fishbelly underframe.  The Arnold Rapido model dates to the early days of N-scale, and looks a bit oversized.  Minitrix also produced a model of an all-wood car with a modern handbrake, however it was offered in only in billboard era schemes.

  The Intermountain model represents a more modern wood reefer with a flat-panel steel roof and modern handbrake.  In most cases, this is the most appropriate model for the post-war era, and the bulk of the schemes offered reflect this.

   The Concor and Bachmann models both feature dreadnaught ends and a diagonal panel roof typical of cars rebuilt in the post-war period.  Both are a bit oversized, and I’m guessing that these were adaptations of existing dies to produce a new body style.   The majority of schemes on the Concor model were primarily from the billboard era making most of them anachronisms.  The original run of Bachmann cars also featured mostly billboard era schemes, but the later “Silver Series” cars featured post-war schemes.

   The chart below includes a lot of guesswork, as most of the entries in the Equipment Registers simply listed “refrigerator”.  Estimates were arrived at by comparing dimensions of unknown series to those of known cars and tracking the rate of attrition.

BANGOR & AROOSTOOK- The only prototype photo I could find of the red, white and blue “State of Maine Potatoes” scheme was on a single-sheathed wood boxcar from series 61000-61599, and most of the models in every scale correspond with this series.  I don’t know how many cars received the scheme, or how long it lasted; but the series had been renumbered by 1957.

BURLINGTON NORTHERN (WFBX) – Intermountain 67727 is numbered for one of three groups of steel underframe type RSB reefers owned by Western Fruit Express.  These were type RS reefers that were modified to facilitate mechanized unloading of commodities such as potatoes.  By 1975, the cars were being transferred to BN ownership by dropping the “X” from the reporting marks.  The January 1979 Equipment Register listed 4 WFBX cars and 154 WFB cars.  All were gone by the July 1981 issue.

MERCHANTS’ DEPATCH TRANSPORTATION (MDT) - Micro-Trains 47190 features the Earlybird logo, which was supposedly used only on a single series of plug door type RB reefers.  This scheme also appears in the Champ Decal catalog.

PURE CARBONIC (DICX) - A 1967 photo shows a steel DICX reefer with the same scheme as Bachmann 19855.  While some series of DICX reefers had wood sides only 17 remained in the April 1963 Equipment Register.  The chart below lists the quantities for all DICX reefers.  Dry ice cars were classified as type LRC by the AAR, and judging by the six-foot inside width, the walls were about two feet thick!


SANTA FE REFRIGERATOR DISPATCH (SFRD) - Santa Fe reefers had five foot doors as opposed to the standard four foot doors.  The curved map and straight map appeared concurrently in 1941, however, the curved map was soon dropped while the straight map was used until 1947.  Micro-Trains 47230 and some of the Con-Cor cars are anachronisms, as they feature the “Route of the…” slogans, which appeared in 1947 when the map was replaced by the “Ship & Travel” slogan.  Santa Fe began rebuilding their reefers with steel sides in the thirties, so none of their wood reefers would have had dreadnaught ends like the Con-Cor model.

ST. LOUIS REFRIGERATOR CAR COMPANY (SLSX) - These cars were type RB reefers, which were used to transport beer for Anheuser-Busch.  They did not have ice bunkers, so they may not have had roof hatches.


SWIFT REFRIGERATOR LINE (SRLX) - The large Swift refrigerator fleet consisted primarily of 36’ cars, and little information is available for their 40’ cars. Micro-Trains 47070 is numbered for the largest series of 40’ cars, while Intermountain 67707 is numbered for a small series of 40’ cars that had been converted to type RB reefers.  The remaining models, all decorated in the red scheme are numbered for 36’ car series, though it’s likely some 40’ cars were painted in this scheme.

UNION REFRIGERATOR TRANSIT LINE (URTX) – As a lessee of refrigerator cars, this company’s large fleet of reefers (5,886 in 1947) would have carried a wide variety of paint schemes.   Though the chart includes the number series and date for each model, though I have no information on how many cars carried each particular scheme or how long it lasted.  The Oscar Mayer car (Con-Cor 1351E) is numbered for a series of 36' cars and the logo should have a white background.

WILSON CAR LINE (WCLX) - Intermountain 67711 is numbered for the Wilson car Lines largest series of 36’ reefers, however, they listed five 40’ cars in 1947.  Refer to the 36’ reefers chart above for the quantity of Wilson cars.

40' wood reefer chart.png


   Express reefers equipped for use on passenger trains were classified as type BR by the AAR.  They were required to have high speed trucks, as well as steam and signal lines.  Though the vast majority of express reefers were fifty foot cars, a few roads had shorter cars, and the chart below lists those models that can represent them.  The overall length of each series is included in the chart.  Bear in mind that the overall length is the distance between pulling faces, so the length of a forty foot car would be between 42 and 43 feet.

40' wood express reefers chart.png