AUSTIN EDITION -- Shipping by rail made Hormel a regional, national company

In 1891, 24 years after the railroad came to Austin, George Hormel started a pork-packing business in an old creamery in Austin. As the business grew, so did its need for a cold transportation system.

Refrigerated cars were what made Geo. A. Hormel and Sons a regional, then national and then international food distributor instead of simply a local business, said Larry Hilgendorf, a retired Hormel rail fleet employee.

"In the Civil War, (refrigerated train cars) started, and it was big, big. It wasn't just the meat business. It was the beer business -- anything that required refrigeration," he said.

Refrigerator cars had ice bunkers on each end and fans to circulate cold air throughout the car, up through a pallet-type floor, Hilgendorf said. Naturally, the amount of ice required depended on the season, but "a whole lot of ice" was needed year-round.

Ice harvesting was risky business, though.


The winter of 1918-19 was mild, resulting in little ice. Finally in March, a freeze hit Austin, and the ice gang took to the Cedar River, according to "In Quest of Quality: Hormel's First 75 Years," by Richard Dougherty.

"Harnessed horses and extra men in dry clothes were stationed on the river bank to take over in the event of an emergency. Lucky was the man in the gang who at some time didn't fall into the frigid water," Dougherty wrote.

Hilgendorf remembers one team of horses fell in and perished.

His job was to track product losses and seek appropriate compensation. For example, if a shipment of food was damaged because of a railroad error, such as a delay or a car not being adequately refrigerated, Hilgendorf would file a claim with the railroad.

"We'd issue a bill of lading to the railroad," he said. "It was a legal document between Hormel and the I&M; (Rail Link.)"

Hormel leased the rail cars from North American Car Corp. and then entered into the legal arrangement with the railway to transport the cars to customers. The bill of lading detailed where the cars should go, when they should arrive and which routes should be taken, Hilgendorf said. It also included instructions, such as topping off the ice bunkers at every stop.

The arrangement also guaranteed the cars would not be used by a railroad for other uses and would be sent back immediately after the delivery was made.

"The rail cars would come back to us and they'd be dirty," he said. They'd go to the Hormel annex near Weyerhaueser Co., where they'd be steam-cleaned and aired out.


When ready for the next trip, the cars would follow the tracks down under the packing plant and would stop under Hormel's ice houses and fill up before being loaded with product.

At stations along the way, platforms were needed for rail employees to load the bunkers using huge coal-type scuttles filled with ice chunks, Hilgendorf said.

In the late 1930s, the plant began manufacturing ice chunks rather than harvesting it from the river, Hilgendorf said.

That system worked for a while, until the trucking industry found its niche. Tracks had fallen into disrepair and that, combined with the ability of trucks to halve the delivery time from four to two days, forced Hormel to switch gears.

Now, Hormel uses steamed rail cars to transport lard to customers, such as bakeries, Bickler said. Without the steam, lard sets up in the tank cars.

"It's the most economical way to ship grease and lard, which are commodities," said Hilgendorf.

Hormel now uses a container method of shipping. Metal boxes about 40 feet long are filled with products and can be sent via truck, rail and boat. The system is used to send Spam to Korea and skins for leather overseas, Bickler said.

The days of refrigerated service are "an age that's come and gone," Hilgendorf said somewhat wistfully.


BOX: Railroad chronology

March 1, 1856: The Minneapolis &; Cedar Valley Railroad is incorporated.

March 10, 1862: The Minneapolis, Faribault &; Cedar Valley Railroad acquires the rights of the Minneapolis &; Cedar Valley Railroad, which folded due to fraud and mismanagement.

Feb. 1, 1864: The Minneapolis, Faribault &; Cedar Valley Railroad changed its name to Minnesota Central Railway, which it retained after being sold to the McGregor Western Railroad later in 1864.

Sept. 12, 1867: Construction of tracks into Austin completed.

Sept. 16, 1867: First passenger train rolls into town.

Oct. 14, 1867: The Minnesota Central Railway becomes part of the Milwaukee &; St. Paul Railway.

1872: The "back; shop" maintenance building was constructed in Austin.


1874: A 13-stall roundhouse was built in Austin. Later, seven stalls and an electric turntable are installed.

1884: First Milwaukee Road Depot, hotel and restaurant are built

1886: The Chicago, Milwaukee &; St. Paul Railway moves from Wells, Minn., to Austin and builds a wye track for locomotive turnarounds.

1895: Austin and the CM &; St.P. agree to build a pedestrian bridge spanning the rail yard. At this time, the railroad employs 500 Austin area people.

1901: A sand house is added to the rail yard.

1904: An addition is built onto the rail yard’s; back shop.

1910: A coal shed is added to the rail yard.

1911: Another addition is built onto the rail yard’s; back shop.


1912: A water tank is added to the rail yard.

1920: Southern Minnesota Division headquarters of the Milwaukee Road moves from La Crosse, Wis., to Austin.

1929: The Chicago Great Western Railroad buys rights to cross Ash, Bryan and Clark streets in Austin for $10 each.

1942: A new passenger depot is built in Austin.

June 1954: The Milwaukee Road begins plan to convert services to diesel.

1955: Demolition of the roundhouse begins. The sand house, coal shed and water tank are razed.

1961: Centralized Traffic Control eliminates Ramsey station.

June 1975: The superintendent and division engineer offices are closed.


Dec. 19, 1977: Milwaukee Road files bankruptcy, resulting in many line abandonments.

1982: Austin's Housing and Redevelopment Authority buys Milwaukee Road Depot.

1983: Southern Minnesota Rail Shippers group forms to protect area rail services and improves the tracks between Austin and Blooming Prairie.

1983: The private railroad named Cedar Valley forms just south of Austin.

1984: Soo Lines takes over Milwaukee Railroad in Austin area and Burlington Northern and Chicago &; Northwestern serving Albert Lea.

1990: Soo Lines is bought by Canadian Pacific.

1992: Cedar Valley Railroad is sold to Chicago, Central &; Pacific Railroad.

July 8, 1994: Pedestrian bridge torn down

1995: Soo Lines asks the Surface Transportation Board to allow closing of Austin offices.

1998: The Iowa &; Montana Rail Link takes control of the old Soo Lines from Owatonna to Lyle.

2000: Austin’s; Housing and Redevelopment Authority acquires the rail yard for development.

2000: IMRL files for debt reorganization.

July 22, 2002: STB allows the Iowa, Chicago &; Eastern, a subsidiary of the Dakota, Minnesota &; Eastern, to buy IMRL.


"The; Mill on the Willow" and Gary Bickler, manager of distribution services for Hormel Foods Corp.; Housing and Re-development Authority

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