KIDS, RAILROADS, PEOPLE & ACTIVITIES

STORIES OF A SMALL RAILROAD TOWN

IN THE 1930'S, 40'S & 50'S

...........by George.       John R. Warren

BLUFORD ICE PLANT
The Bluford Ice Plant was built along the Bluford ICRR switching Yards, in the late 1920's. It was a very important part of the RR operation in those days, even though it was run by a separate company, not part of the ICRR. It had a double deck icing platform . and was 2700', or a little over 1/2 mile long. That was purported to be the 4th largest in the country.. I'm not sure where the other three may have been, but it seems that one may have been in Chicago or Memphis. There was a track on either side of the platform, in addition to the 15 switching tracks in the yards. They were called the East Ice House and West Ice House tracks. There was also an Ice House spur per track, which went right up to the plant itself. The Ice House tracks were about 60 cars long which meant you could get as many as 120 cars along the platform if you used both sides.

The Ice Plant consisted of 4 major areas: 1) The engine, machinery, and refrigeration units; 2) the ice producing area; 3) the temporary storage and staging area; and 4) the big main storage area. There was also a locker room and office areas in a separate building. (See Picture) The plant was connected to the icing platform via a large wooden ramp and a conveyor chain would transport the ice from the plant, out to the platform. Then on the first level of the platform, there were 2 conveyor chains, one running north and one running south, each to the end of the platform. The ice was made and handled in 300 lb. blocks. A man needed to be able to end up a 300 lb. block with a set of tongs, and that was quite a chore. Up at the middle of the platform, a man also had to head the blocks out to the north or southbound conveyor chains, by moving a "direction controller" where the ramp chain met the platform chain.

The 1st level of the platform was at just the right height of a railroad car. When a 300 lb. block of ice was where it would be needed, it would be kicked off the chain by a man. Then using about a 5 ft. long "ice pick" it would be split into three 100 lb. blocks. There was a wooden, 2-rail skid that connected to a sort of a rail on the platform and the other end would go to the ice bunker of the reefer (refrigerator) cars. Then the 100 lb. blocks would be shoved across the skid and into the ice bunker. Reefer cars had an ice bunker at each end. There were 2 lids, one on each side, on each end of the car. These were rather heavy and could be opened to install ice, clamped down tightly closed, or set partly open for ventilation. It took a bit of skill and muscle to scoot those 100 lb. blocks across the skid and then into the bunker. We also needed to make sure there were no people (car knockers) beneath us, just in case a 100 lb. block went off the skid, which it sometimes did. This was before the days of mechanical refrigeration units on reefer cars and these cars were much like the old ice boxes used in homes before refrigerators became available. In the winter time, some cars would require charcoal heaters to be installed and lit to keep the contents from freezing. Anything shipped in a reefer car would be called "perishable", which meant that it needed special attention to keep the contents at the correct temperature, so they wouldn't spoil or freeze.

The refrigeration units in the machinery area ran constantly. Besides producing the ice in the first place, they had to keep the temporary and main storage areas well below freezing so the stored ice wouldn't melt. I think they had auxiliary power generators in case the power went out, and also extra refrigeration units, in case one failed or was down for maintenance. They were not computer controlled, of course, and required monitoring various gages, periodically to make sure they were doing OK. Gaseous ammonia was used as the refrigerant and you could always smell it.

The ice producing area had 30 rows of ice containers. Each row had 24 containers. There were 12 containers in a group, and 2 of the 12 groups in each row . These would be filled with water and then lowered, with a crane into the cold brine where the 300 lb. blocks of ice were frozen. So if all were filled with ice or water, that would be 720 of the 300 lb. blocks, or 108 tons of ice! There was a compressed air hose which kept air bubbles going thru the water as it froze. These were connected  prior to lowering the groups of 12 containers and then were removed when the ice was lifted out for transport to the ice storage room. This somehow let clear ice be produced instead of milky white ice blocks. I think it took an hour or two to produce a bank of frozen ice. There were usually several in various stages at any given time. When frozen, a bank would be lifted out with cranes and moved over to the area beside the temporary storage area. The metal containers were hosed down, so the ice could be removed, then the doors to the temp area were opened and the entire bank of ice blocks turned and dumped into that area. Quite a lot of ice was always kept in this temporary storage. That is where  the ice was manually loaded onto the conveyor chain to go out to the platform. When there was enough ice there, the ice would then be moved into the huge main storage building. It must have been about three storied high, and the ice blocks had to completely fill one level, before another level blocks would be started, on top of the previous layer. There was an ice elevator to lift those 300 lb. blocks up to the right level. There was about 27 layers of levels of ice to get to the top of the building. Typically the "main" would be nearly empty at the end of summer, then gradually get filled back up during the winter. The ice used in the busy summers could not be produced fast enough, so the extra ice needed came from the main. Most of the ice plant workers could do most any jobs associated with the ice plant. When we went to work, winter or summer, we needed to take winter coats, caps, and gloves. We might end up for about 8 hours in the temporary and main ice areas, where the temp was down around 10-20 degreesF., or we might end up out on the platform hauling salt or icing reefer cars, or maybe in the ice producing building, making ice.

The upper level of the platform was for servicing the salt chutes. Sometimes we added salt to the ice in the reefer cars. There was a big salt bin at the south end of the platform. We first shoveled salt into that big bin from a box car. We could fill big carts with salt from the bin, via shovels, and then haul the carts to the salt chutes, and fill then with salt, from that upper level of the platform. Salt chutes were located along the platform about every two car lengths or so. Then there was always salt available when it was time to ice cars, as close as the nearest salt chute.
Besides the the railroad use of ice, which was by far the main purpose of the ice plant, ice was sold for home use as well. Outside the temporary storage area was a small loading platform where customers could buy ice. The 300 lb. blocks would be put into a "scoring" machine, which would use rotary saw blades to dig in a short distance and "score" the ice block. Then it would tip the the block over and score it the other direction. It was scored into six 50 lb. chunks, which could then be separated with a common hand ice pick. There were store owners, for example, like Barney Vance, who had a small "ice house" outside his store. Byron Lee (Vance) would get a quantity of ice each day. A lot would be delivered around Bluford, because there were more ice boxes than refrigerators, well into the 40's. Ice would also be kept at the Vance store in their ice house for drop in customers. Ice was delivered to customers by the Vance truck, and customers would have a sign, about a foot or so square, which had 25, 50, 75, and 100 on the four sides. The customer would turn the sign so that the amount of ice needed, in lbs. would be on top. Thus Byron could pick up the right sized chunks, with the ice tongs, and bring it on in and put it in the top of the ice box.

The ice plant was an interesting place to work and the crews were friendly. The work was usually pretty hard, sometimes very cold; other times on a summer day, out hauling salt on the platform, very hot. The pay wasn't as good as most RR jobs, but many made their living there and some of us supplemented our income working there.

The icing platform burned in about 1959/60, but by then mechanical refrigeration cars were taking the place of the old "ice box" cars anyway.






Bluford
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