Revolution in Transportation

1940s roadBefore the war, railroads dominated the transportation system in America and all over the world. The railroads had been dominant since the transcontinental line was completed from Omaha to San Francisco in 1869. Rails crisscrossed the country bringing hords of European settlers to the western frontier and bringing their crops and cattle back to the eastern urban markets. By the 1930s, the railroads were so big and so important, they built huge, magnificent palaces and gave them the pedestrian name of “stations.” But their days were numbered.

kooserOver the course of those seven decades, the railroads created a romance because – along with the people and produce – the cars carried the hopes and dreams of people, as well. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser suggests that the railroads were an integral part of the psyche of America in this poem entitled “City Limits.”

After the war, trucks caught up to and passed the railroads as the primary conveyors of agricultural products to markets and consumers. But it took three postwar developments to make that revolution possible.

  • First, the transportation revolution required better roads.
  • Second, it required better trucks and engines.
  • Third, it required refrigerated trailers.

Roads. Pressure from farmers to get them out of the mud forced the government to build the first federal highway system. Legislators from farm states pushed the first road and highway act through Congress in 1916. As a result, the miles of surfaced roads shot up from 521,000 in 1925 to 1,721,000 in 1945.

In 1944 – while World War II was still going on – Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, and committed the nation to building a modern, four-lane interstate highway system across the country. The highway administration mapped out 40,000 miles of interstate.

Trucks. One of the arguments for the interstate highway system was that it would help farmers get their produce from rural areas to city markets quickly and efficiently. Ironically, trucks have never been able to match the low per ton per mile cost of railroads in transporting food. But the speed and flexibility of trucks won the battle for farm to market transportation.

This revolution in transportation also allowed huge changes in the marketing of food products. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, cattle producers would drive their herds to rail yards, where the stock would be shipped to a central cattle market in places like Chicago or Omaha. There, packinghouses would cluster around the pens and bid for the cattle they needed to supply their customers with meat.

As trucks took over, the markets decentralized. Packing houses found they could build slaughterhouses in rural areas closer to their suppliers and closer to a good supply of non-union workers willing to take low-paying, dirty jobs. The huge central markets in Chicago and Omaha died out.

Diesel engines. During the war, the Army needed to move large numbers of troops and supplies around far-flung battlefields. Larger and better trucks with larger, more capable diesel engines were designed and built in factors that had been producing trucks and cars for civilian use. When the war ended, what these manufacturers had learned propelled the trucking industry forward.

FreightlinersThe refrigerated trailer. In 1938 a Minneapolis trucking executive, Harry Werner, was playing golf with a manufacturer of movie theatre sound systems, Joseph Numero. Werner was complaining about the huge losses his company was experiencing trying to get butchered chickens to market in the hot weather. No one knows exactly which man said it – “There ought to be a way to refrigerate a trailer.” That comment led to a host of new industries and products.

Werner loaned one of his trailers to Numero, who brought in his mechanics to work on the problem. By 1941, they had patented designs for a shock-resistant refrigeration unit that would be mounted on the trailer. Numero quit the movie business and formed U.S. Thermo Control Company.

Soon, the new company had exclusive contracts with the U.S. military to ship food to the troops. That contract kept the company and the industry alive. The company is now named Thermo King. One of Thermo King’s ten assembly plants is now in Hastings, Nebraska.

After the war, refrigerated trucks meant that a local farmer’s market expanded beyond the 50 miles around his or her farm. Before the war, trucks were “refrigerated” by packing ice into the truck and turning on a fan. When the ice melted, the “cold” ran out and the food spoiled. Farmers in California might be growing lettuce in the winter, but they couldn’t get it to consumers in Nebraska, let alone the East Coast.

Reefers – refrigerated trucks – changed all that and spawned the entire frozen food industry. As that industry grew after the war, refrigerated modular shipping containers were put on ships, and a new industry was born.

Today, over 35 million container loads of refrigerated products are shipped annually from one part of the globe to another.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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