The museum will be open this Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm CDT.

Turkeys & Trains

As the holiday season fast approaches, many people will probably enjoy one of the most noticeable traditions at the dinner table – a roasted turkey. Turkeys have been the main course for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts for a very long time. They serve as a very recognizable symbol of family togetherness during this special time of the year.

In years past, railroads were relied upon to transport all manner of livestock. However, transporting turkeys and other poultry via rail posed a number of problems. Poultry was usually shipped in coops without proper food or water. The loading and unloading of the birds resulted in a number being injured or dead.

Between the rough handling and lack of care, it is safe to assume that many turkeys never made it to their intended dinner tables. Because of the problems associated with transporting turkeys via rail in the mid 1800s, some eastern farmers opted to “drive” their turkeys to market, not unlike the cattle drives of the old west. This inefficient method resulted in many lost birds, which unlike cattle, could simply fly away. Turkey drives were a common practice even in Indiana. One book talks about the driving of 3,000 turkeys from Indianapolis to Cincinnati by a father and son team who related the drive to something no different than driving sheep or hogs.

Some people may be surprised to learn that it was a Hoosier who actually helped revolutionize the transportation of poultry via rail. William P. Jenkins was a traveling freight agent for the Erie Railroad. He and James L. Streeter, a poultry dealer in Muncie, Indiana, invented a live poultry car that permitted the feeding and watering of birds in transit on decks that ran the length of the car. Early on, many other companies tried to duplicate their design in function, but were generally unsuccessful.

The men were issued a patent for their idea in 1884 and in 1888 they started the Jenkins Live Poultry Car Company with headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. The company was reorganized as the Live Poultry Transportation Company shortly thereafter. By 1914, the company had again reorganized itself as the Live Poultry Transit Company.

The live poultry car design was so revolutionary that one of the company’s cars was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. It garnered a great deal of attention and it was easily recognized that everything about the design was done for the comfort of the birds. The company felt that their design was so special that many of their cars were named, not unlike the naming of passenger cars.

The Live Poultry Transit Company had thousands of their patented cars built by various manufacturers. A large number of these special poultry cars were built right here in Indiana. The Terre Haute Car and Manufacturing Company produced 50 such cars in 1893 and 27 more cars in 1897. In 1914, the company ordered 240 live poultry cars from the Haskell & Barker Car Company in Michigan City, Indiana. In 1921, the Blacksmiths, Drop Forgers and Helpers Monthly Journal indicated that the company had requested quotes for 100 to 300 additional poultry cars to be built by the Michigan City builder. Haskell & Barker later become part of Pullman Standard. Around 1920, the company’s fleet had grown to more than 2,000 live poultry cars.

Although the cars evolved in their design over the years, in the early 1900s, the Jenkins live poultry cars were described as being “36 feet long, 10 feet wide and 2 feet higher than the ordinary live stock car.” The cars were set lower on the wheelsets to allow for the taller body. The sides were covered in mesh netting to allow for ventilation and the cages were slanted to the outside of the car, making them as self-cleaning as possible. Each car contained 128 cages with each cage containing 7 to 12 turkeys. On average, the car could transport about 1,200 turkeys.

Some live poultry cars were built with a dual purpose in mind. These cars had half the number of cages at one end of the car with the other end of the car containing an ice-cooled refrigerated section for moving eggs. The magazine Poultry Monthly stated in 1897:

“In these the poultry can be fed and watered en route. Arrangements have also been made so that eggs and poultry can both be sent in the same car, if a car-load of neither can be made up. The live poultry shipping business is rapidly increasing in the West since these improved shipping facilities have been put into operation.”

An attendant was sent along with each poultry shipment to care for the birds en route. He lived in what was termed a “stateroom” at the center of the car complete with a bunk, stove and sink. It’s safe to assume that there weren’t many other amenities in the eight-foot wide room and the smell was surely unpleasant, along with all of the noise from the birds. They were watered from a rectangular tank at the top of the car. Originally, this tank held 750 gallons of water, but later versions of the car held only about 300 gallons. The attendant walked along a walkway at the center of the car, feeding the birds from a 50 bushel bin of grain that was located below the floor in the stateroom.

Live turkeys proved to be particularly difficult to transport via rail and their regular shipment ended in the 1920s. However, the railroads frequently operated a “turkey special” just before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when the demand for the birds was high. One such train operated between Morristown, Tennessee, and Jersey City, New Jersey, a distance of nearly 700 miles.

The turkeys were fed a sloppy mixture of crushed corn and water by the attendant. About 12 hours before the turkeys arrived at their destination, he would feed whole corn to the turkeys in an attempt to cut down on shrinkage (weight loss). Turkeys were particularly prone to shrinkage and that is why many shippers later opted to ship dressed birds to market.

Undoubtedly, many of these live poultry cars made their way through North Judson on fast freight trains with feathers flying behind them. Known as “cackle cars” for obvious reasons, these live poultry cars were a profitable endeavor for the railroads and the Live Poultry Transit Company. They were used to haul all manner of domestic fowl – primarily chickens – but they could also haul ducks, geese, pigeons, and of course turkeys. The cage floors were designed so that they could be lowered to accommodate the larger birds.

The Live Poultry Transit Company held a virtual monopoly on the movement of live birds via rail for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While they had some competition from the short-lived Continental Live Poultry Car Company and the American Poultry Car Company, it wasn’t until 1924 when a foxy competitor snuck into the chicken house, so to speak. In that year, the Palace Poultry Car Company was formed and just two short years later, PPCX was acquired by the North American Car Company. By 1930, the Live Poultry Transit Company, which had invented the poultry car industry, was swallowed up by larger North American – ending its feathery reign on the rails.

North American Car Company purchased the North Judson Car & Equipment Company in 1927. This car repair shop in North Judson repaired tank cars, refrigerated box cars, and the poultry cars of the Palace Poultry Car Company. The North American car shop was located along the New York Central in what is today the industrial park. One grainy photo on display in our depot actually shows what it most likely a live poultry car awaiting repairs at the facility.

North American continued to operate the live poultry car fleet through World War II, when the shipment of live poultry via rail increased with the war effort. However, with the advent of improved highway systems in the years immediately preceding and following the war, the shipment of live poultry by rail was doomed. Transporting all manner of livestock via rail was in continual decline with stiff competition from trucks. A number of efforts were made to combat the problem, but the logistics of shipping live poultry over rail proved folly.

In 1944, North American spun off its poultry car fleet to a new concern called the Poultry Transit Company. By 1950, the company had only 15 poultry cars in its fleet. The company made its last rail shipments of live birds in 1956, thus marking the end of an amazing aspect of railroad history.

Today, turkeys are still transported via rail, just in frozen form. Only one live poultry car is known to have survived the fall of the Poultry Transit Company. PTCX #423 is located at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation. When you sit down to enjoy your turkey dinner this holiday, take a moment to remember this long-forgotten railroad industry and the Indiana men who started it all.

Written by HVRM Member Bob Barcus, November 20, 2011
For photos and more information about cackle cars, visit our gallery of Live Poultry Cars.