Friday, September 14, 2012

PFE operations -- from Pete Holst

As part of the research for the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, A.W. Thompson, R.J. Church, B.H. Jones, Signature Press, 2000), I interviewed a number of PFE retirees. The interviews were taped and later transcribed. Some of the insights into how things were done were invaluable.
     In this post I present a small part of two long interviews with A.L. “Pete” Holst, who worked his whole career for PFE, starting in 1917. He retired as Assistant General Manager for Car Service at San Francisco. My first interview was at hs home in San Mateo, on January 30, 1986. I will pick up somewhere around the middle, when we talked details of operations. My comments are denoted as “Q” for questioner, Pete’s answers as “A.”

A. I had a lot of arguments with some of the managers, after I was in Los Angeles down there, during the World War down there, you know, we had a lot of shortages of ice everywhere. I finally sat down with the old guy that ran the Santa Fe’s Refrigeration Department, and we pulled a lot of stuff, traded ice, switched ice, and everything else. I’d give him ice if he was short, give him ice from Colton, and he’d give me ice from Bakersfield. We saved a hell of a lot of cross-hauling of ice. 

Q. Was that plant in Bakersfield theirs?

A. Well, they had a plant in Bakersfield, and we had a plant, but they had a bigger plant than we did. They had a big plant at San Bernardino, that’s where their big plant was. When I needed ice in Imperial Valley, and I ran out of the other sources, why, I traded ice up the valley with the Santa Fe. We saved a lot of cross-hauling. For years we’d been shipping ice right by their ice plants, and one thing and another. So we got a break with old John Daly, and he was glad to get it.

Q. I suppose the Santa Fe reefers didn’t show up on SP tracks, for SP shippers to use. Or did you use them if you needed the empties?

A. No, no, we didn’t trade with the Santa Fe on cars. They were a little too jealous for that. We wouldn’t let a Santa Fe car be loaded on our line either. We switched ’em back and forth down there, of course, and if they were unloaded on the SP we turned ’em back, and they would, too. If PFE’s cars were unloaded on the Santa Fe, they’d give ’em back to us. We could always use ‘em.

Q. I’ve read that three sizes of ice were used on the deck, that were chunk, coarse, and crushed, I think. Is that right?

A. Yeah. You always had crushed ice for the meat cars, they generally took small pieces, you know, and you iced the frozen food cars with more or less smaller chunks.

Q. How big would those be?

A. Oh, they’d be 25, 30, 50 pounds. You chopped it up a little more because you were putting 30 per cent salt in ’em, see.

Q. Then you put the salt in, for the others?

A. No, you dump the salt in as you put the ice in. After you got it about half full, then you start pouring salt in.

Q. No, I meant for regular icing. Did they put in the whole cake, or whatever would fit in the hatch?

A. No, you’re never supposed to put that in. It’s supposed to be a quarter of a 300-pound cake. You cut it in half this long way, and then this way. We had a lot of trouble, you see, with the cars whenever they used to take over a half a tank of ice. The Claim Department, the claim clerks of the shippers, would claim that if it got halfway empty, or halfway full, it wasn’t giving ’em refrigeration, see, so they would file claims on it, even though you knew darn well, there’s no way they could say that. After we once paid a few claims like that, why, then everybody would get next to it. So what we were doing, we were spending a lot of money and labor to get more ice into the car, chopping what was big chunks in there, chopping it up finer and filling it up. Of course, what we were doing by chopping it up finer, we were actually making the ice in there last longer, and by doing that you weren’t giving the refrigeration any more. You do better with chunks and you’re getting air through it, see. We didn’t have to tell the shippers that after they insisted on it.
     The things we’d run into. One time, I’d just got back from Imperial Valley, I guess, and a guy from Portland called up, they were in trouble in Medford. I went up there, and what they were doing, the shippers all started ordering salted cars, in other words, salt the initial car when it went to their deck. Well, in a little layout like that, they were loading a lot of cars, 40, 50 cars a day in a small yard, and switching facilities weren’t too good. They had the railroad just tied up. And they weren’t all the same, one’d order two per cent salt, and this other guy wanted three per cent salt, see. So I got our agent, who was the traveling man in Portland, and I said, “Now let’s sit down and go to every one of these shippers.”
      So I went in there and I told ’em, “Now you fellows are just spending your money and losing what you’re doing. You’re ordering these cars initially salted, and as soon as that salt hits the ice in there, that water starts pouring out.Then it gets to your shed, you open the doors, and it stands open for two hours while you load the car. You’ve used up half of your tank of ice, and you haven’t got any use for it. If you’ll just load in a regular iced car, and say you want initial icing with two per cent salt, and bill it that way, then you’ll get the full refrigeration that you’re entitled to.” Well, they could see that they were just wasting their money doing that, see. So I got ’em all to either decide on two per cent or three per cent when they billed the car, then when it got to the ice deck we could take care of it.

Q. So you mean you put the salt in after it was loaded, instead of before?

A. Yeah, after it was loaded, initial icing. Then you really start doing a cooling job. But before, you were doing the cooling job, and then open the doors wide open for two or three hours while you were loading the car.

Q. Was icing done the same way in the east?

A. I had a chance once to see ice decks in the east. I made a trip, I was the PFE man, and we had a man from the MDT, one from the ART, and one from the Santa Fe. Somebody’d been screaming, I guess, about the various ice capacity of the cars, see, so we started out and made a circuit around the country, filling these bunkers up, icing ’em full, and measuring if the bunkers compared to what they said they were. We had a lot of fun on that trip. The guy from the Santa Fe was quite a joker, and the guy from the MDT, he was a very pompous guy, you know. This is in the summertime that we made this trip. The first thing the Santa Fe guy did to him, why, we were out around the ice deck in the railroad yards, and he found a piece of a brake shoe, you know, and he slipped that into his suitcase.
     Then we got to, where the hell was that, Kansas City, I guess. Anyway, the ice deck was, no, it was further east, on the MDT, I guess, and we were on this ice deck, and they had quite an office up on the top of it, you know, and it had a great big stove in there, about that high, and that sort of thing. Mac, we called him, MacCarty, he was an Irishman, the Santa Fe guy. He looked at this stove, see, and this MDT guy was in there making up all the figures, you know, getting the car number and the measurements and one thing and another. So he slipped a match into that stove and went out, you know. The rest of us were out in the yard, and this guy was up in that office, doing his work, see, and he come out just wringing wet. “I don’t know how it got so damn hot.” The stove was red hot, with all that paper in it.
     Then we were in the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, and Mac was a good friend of the maitre d’ in the bar. We’d been in there and had dinner and one thing and another, and he kept slipping silverware in this guy’s pocket. When we went out the door, a guy stopped him, see, slapped his coat, says “What in hell?” and started pulling out this silverware. Oh, that guy was fit to be killed.

Q. This was MacCarty arranging all this?

A. Oh, yeah. I had a picture of that gang, that I ran across the other day, taken somewhere back there, out on the ice deck, watching ’em ice cars.

Q. What did they decide about those tests, the car capacities?

A. Oh, they decided they were all right. I guess they took all the figures, and they found what went into ’em was at least within the ballpark of being what they rated in the book. It always depends on, you know, what kind of a job you do. You can be three, four, five hundred pounds off, if you just throw in chunks and don’t chop it down too much, and leave a lot of vacancies in there.

Q. It must have been pretty variable, sure.

A. It’s the same way with estimating how much ice you’re going to put in a car. See, all the charges are based on the estimates.

Q. Oh, is that right? So that’s what the estimator is doing, walking down the cars. He’s looking in the bunkers, to see how empty they are.

A. Yeah, and writing down the car numbers, and how much ice is going to go in here, see.

Q. Why wouldn’t they just have the guys on the deck fill up each one?

A. Well, they do, but you’ve got to have that record, so much ice, see, for each station, and claim records are based on a lot of those records. If you missed icing it, why, you’re going to pay for it. Of course, the refrigeration charge was a set amount to a certain station, see, California to Pittsburgh and so forth. But your record has got to show that it’s been iced at each station, and how much ice went in there.

Q. So the shipper didn’t specify how often it was iced, they just sent it.

A. That’s right, standard refrigeration, and, like citrus, you can bill it “one icing,” and so forth.

Q. You mean it would just get iced once in transit, then?

A. Yeah. You would do that when it wasn’t too warm.

Q. So the PFE didn’t have anything to do with how it was iced?

A. No, the bill of lading would say how he wanted it, what the refrigeration should be, see.

Q. The shipper would put that.

A. Yeah, he said “standard refrigeration,” or “one icing in transit,” at, say, Kansas City. He’d say where he wanted it iced again, see.

Q. Then the railroad just followed the bill of lading when they handled the car, unless a car missed a connection or something.

A. Yeah, you just follow the billing.

Q. So the shipper would have to know something about what to expect.

A. Yeah, yeah, he’s got to know, but they all had traffic managers. A few of our boys have turned over to be traffic managers, see, because all that stuff has diversions on it, too, you know. Every car, all those cars out of Imperial Valley might be billed way short of where you want to go. One or two shippers would bill everything to El Paso, see. Before the car got to El Paso, they’d change the destination, so that it would go to Chicago, or go to New Orleans, or wherever you want.

Q. Depending on the market, I guess.

A. Yeah, and on where your sales were. The diversion part of it was a big part of our business, see, handling all the perishable diversions.

Q. They must have been charged for those diversions, or weren’t they?

A. No, I think they got three for free.

Q. That sounds like a lot of work for PFE.

A. Yeah, well, especially when you get into stuff like Mexican tomatoes, diversions on every car, because they were only billed to the border to start with, and you got that Mexican waybill, and all the stuff that goes on at Nogales, that was a job. And then they diverted, except for the local ones.
     And then you get the Canadian shipments. You’d get a Canadian shipment that’s diverted to someplace in the United States. You ship it in bond, and then you got to get somebody to open the car for you.

Q. Did the shipper just phone up his local agent, and tell him how many cars he wanted that day? I suppose you had no way to know what he needed.

A. Oh, yeah, they had to order the cars.

Q. Did they do it in advance, or could they tell you the same day?

A. Well, they’d order, they might increase their order, if it’s locally, see. If you’re way out in the country someplace, it has to be in the night before. We generally got our orders in the afternoon or early in the evening, for the following day’s loads, see, so you’d know how many to ice in advance.

Q. And from experience, you’d know how many cars to have on hand at that town.

A. Yeah, oh, yeah. Of course, most of it moves out of a central point. In Los Angeles, everything came out of Los Angeles Yard [Taylor], for all that citrus territory down through there. But Imperial Valley, it’d be right in the town, El Centro, Brawley, Calexico, because the local switch engines in those towns were stationed there.

Q. So then did PFE tell the SP crews how to handle the cars?

A. Yeah, the shipper would order the cars, and we’d give a list to the SP.

Q. It was a big operation, wasn’t it?

A. You ain’t kidding. When you deal with that many cars a day down there. . .

     Pete loved to tell PFE stories, and he seemed to have an endless supply. I’ll post more of them soon. He passed away in 1992, and as with so many old-timers, an awful lot of knowledge passed with him.
Tony Thompson


  1. Thanks, Tony. The history you've preserved is wonderful to read about. Photos and model information you provide here and in your books provide concrete ideas about how things looked during that time. First hand discourse of how things worked, how PFE business was conducted, and the about the personalities involved provides a wonderfully rich insight into a fantastic period in American railroading.

    It is sad that we continue to lose these personal narratives with each passing day.

    Thanks again and I await the next installment.


  2. That was great Tony. I look forward to reading more.

    Rick Watson

  3. Thanks for sharing all this PFE information and the intervjuven.

    - Mikael

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  5. This is among the most delightful examples of fractured language masquerading as English that I've seen in a long time. A native English speaker couldn't make up this stuff.
    Tony Thompson