History: Truckee Ice and the Pacific Fruit Express


With the influx of fortune-seekers and settlers to California in the mid-1800s, a vigorous farming industry grew up in the inland valleys. The production capacity of the farms and orchards, especially for citrus and other fruit, soon exceeded the local demand. Export markets were needed if the industry was to continue growing.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 promised access to Midwest and Eastern markets, but the railroad technology of the day was not up to the task of keeping fruit fresh across the hot expanse of the Great Basin. Agricultural products were shipped in “ventilated boxcars,” which provided some movement of air, but little cooling, so were useless in hot weather and for long distances.

The Solution Was … Ice

Railroads and shipping entrepreneurs had experimented with using ice to cool perishable loads as early as 1851. In that year the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began shipping butter from Vermont to Boston in purpose-built ice-cooled freight cars. A later experiment in shipping Midwest beef featured a layer of ice on the freight car floor and carcasses hung from the ceiling. Unfortunately, the load was prone to shifting as the cars went around curves, and many derailments resulted.

Railroad refrigerator cars quickly improved. In 1875, Samuel Rumph, a Georgia peach grower, invented a refrigerated railcar and crate system that allowed him to ship peaches in volume to distant markets. In 1890, a California fruit rancher named Edwin Tobias Earl designed a refrigerator car to transport fruits to the East Coast and established the Continental Fruit Express Company.

Armour and Swift Dominate Refrigerated Shipping

Most railroads were initially uninterested in owning and maintaining refrigerator cars or the infrastructure and workforce needed to keep them filled with ice. This allowed private car lines to enter the business. Shipping of meat became a huge business, and two meat shippers, Swift and Armour, soon dominated the refrigerated shipping industry. Armour negotiated an exclusive contract with Southern Pacific to ship California fruit and vegetables to the East. Unfortunately, Armour quickly developed a reputation for squeezing the growers, the ice producers, and the railroads by forcing exclusive contracts, controlling the price of icing, and dictating schedules and shipment routes that maximized their profits at the expense of their customers.

An Ice Industry Grows in Truckee

A small market for Truckee ice had developed soon after the completion of the railroad, when restaurants and grocers in San Francisco discovered that they could get cheaper and cleaner ice by rail from the Sierra than by ship from their existing sources up the Pacific coast. Demand for ice to cool the geothermally heated mines of the Comstock Lode soon exceeded that of San Francisco and the coast. By 1872, the Comstock mines were using 10,000 tons of ice annually, mostly from Donner Pass and the Truckee basin.

A winter ice industry quickly grew, first on the “Ice Lakes” just west of Donner Pass, and later on ice ponds made by damming the Truckee River tributaries. Remnants of the earth and rock dams that formed the ice ponds can still be seen from the Legacy Trail on the main Truckee River about three miles east of town and on Martis Creek just above its confluence with the Truckee River.

Truckee was ideal for the ice industry — it had cold temperatures in winter for rapid ice formation, ready labor in the form of lumbermen idled by the cold weather, and an ample supply of sawdust for insulating the ice to keep it frozen over the warm months. By the 1880s, there were more than 20 ice companies in the Truckee Donner area producing 60,000 tons of ice annually.

The Truckee ice industry was also well-positioned to take advantage of the growing business of refrigerated shipping. In particular, Armour and Continental Fruit Express contracted for the entire production of the Donner Ice Company, which harvested ice from man-made ponds along Donner Creek between Donner Lake and present-day highway 89.

Union Ice Company and the Consolidation of the Truckee Ice Industry

Competition among the many Truckee ice producers was fierce. In 1882, many of the Truckee ice companies joined together to create the Union Ice Company. Initially, Union Ice handled the distribution of ice and negotiated uniform prices, but it soon took over much of the production as well. By the early 1900s, Union Ice controlled the entire ice industry in Truckee and was shipping ice to contract icing facilities in the Central Valley.

Founding and Growth of the Pacific Fruit Express Company (PFE)

In 1901, Edward Henry Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific, had acquired a majority interest in the Southern Pacific Company, thereby bringing the two railroads under joint control. Harriman recognized an opportunity in the growing California fruit industry, and in 1906 announced the termination of the Armour contract and the founding of the Pacific Fruit Express Company (PFE), jointly owned by SP and UP.

The growth of PFE was phenomenal. Harriman started the company with the purchase of 6600 refrigerator cars, and by 1930 the “Great Yellow Fleet” had grown to over 40,000 cars, more than 20% of the refrigerated cars operated in the U.S.

PFE quickly replaced Armour as the main customer for Truckee ice, and financed the expansion of ice ponds and storage facilities. Annual production increased to over 100,000 tons. PFE also built a 21-car icing platform in Truckee for re-icing both eastbound and westbound shipments.

Decline of Truckee Ice and Pacific Fruit Express

The Truckee ice industry was vital to PFE for shipments over Donner Pass, but didn’t have the capacity or reliability to meet the demand for ice. In 1907, PFE built a huge mechanical ice manufacturing plant in Roseville that soon produced more ice in a day than Truckee could harvest in a season. Truckee ice was still used to “re-ice” or top-up cars until 1920, when PFE built a second ice manufacturing plant in Sparks. The Truckee ice industry declined sharply from that point, but ice harvests continued, particularly in Boca, until 1927.

PFE’s fruit shipping business continued at a high level until the 1950s, when refrigerated trucking began to take market share from the railroads. PFE was shut down in 1978 and its remaining assets were divided between SP and UP.

Sources: “Pacific Fruit Express,” by Thompson, Church and Jones, “Sunset Limited,” by Richard J. Orsi, and Donner Ice Supplied the California Agriculture Industry by Gordon Richards in the Sierra Sun, Dec. 11, 2006.

Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. He lives in Tahoe Vista

Boca Ice Harvest. Notice that there is no snow on the hill but it is cold. There are at least 37 men participating/working the harvest and the train on the tracks in the background to transport the ice.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society.
Horses are used to score the ice during Trout Creek Ice Company harvest.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Loading ice into the reefer train cars.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society
A former Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator car on display in Sebastopol.
Provided photo
Loading ice at Boca onto train cars.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society.
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