In 1873 the first transportation of Striped Bass by rail from
the east coast to the west
coast was conducted by Dr. Livingston Stone of the U.S. Fish Commission.
With 35,000 fry carried in open milk cans, Dr. Stone and his
assistants changed the water every two
hours where possible in order to deliver their shipment safe and sound for stocking in
Shipping live fish in the 1880s started the basics of this new science to evolve.
For instance, the water in fish containers required frequent aeration, and a suitable
water temperature was necessary. The water needed to be kept free of slime and impurities.
Adding ice to the water was very important as the colder water absorbed more oxygen and
reduced the oxygen needs of the fish. It was discovered it was beneficial to confine fish
a few days without food before loading them onto the fish cars.
As interest in the management of streams increased, so did rail shipments of fish. In
the beginning, fish were shipped in baggage cars with fish culturist attendees called
"messengers". Their task was to aerate the water and make sure their cargos
arrived in sound condition. With steadily increasing traffic of fish, the Fish Commission
decided in 1881 to purchase a "fish
car" a train car specifically equipped for carrying fish.
The Fish Commission purchased a total of ten "Fish Cars".
The first fish car
was a wooden baggage car converted to carrying live fish.
Car No. 2 was fitted with special compartments to hold ice.
It was reinforced so it could
carry as much as 20,000 pounds of fish, water and equipment at passenger train speeds.
Fish Car No. 3 not only carried fish but hatched fish eggs while in transit.
Fish Car No. 4 had cedar tanks and an air pump to aerate the water.
Each car produced
became more advanced than its predecessor.
Fish Car No. 7 was the first steel fish car and had twice the fish-carrying capacity of
the older wooden cars.
With more efficient fish train cars being produced, more efficient equipment was developed.
cans were replaced by lightweight containers called "Fearnow" pails. These
containers weighed less, could carry twice as many fish as the older milk cans, took up
less space, and had a special compartment which held ice to keep the water cool. Electric
and jet aerators using compressed air replaced manual aeration of water in containers.
Fish car, Car No. 10, was built in 1929.
Its insulated compartments could hold up to
500,000 one-inch fish and it had its own generator to operate all the equipment, including
the aerating devices. But the "Fish Car Era" was coming to a close. By 1932,
truck transportation of fish was more economical and making an increasing impact. By 1937,
modernized trucks were equaling the mileage of the fish car rail fleet at a lower cost. By
1940, only three fish cars were still operating. One of the cars was wrecked in 1944. The
fate of another is unknown. And the last fish car, Car No. 10, the pride of the fleet, was
finally taken out of service in 1947 with its equipment scattered among various
The fish cars generally operated from April through November and usually contained a
five-man crew consisting of a captain, messengers and a cook. They traveled, ate and slept
on the fish cars as they crisscrossed the country.
Fish delivery service was free of charge, the recipients need only to be at the station to
pick up the fish. If no rail terminus was nearby, a messenger would unload the shipment
and transport it to a more convenient location.
Railroads generally charged 20 cents a mile to haul the cars and their crews, and
sometimes levied no charge for up to fifty percent of the annual fish car mileage.
Messengers detached from shipments rode for reduced rates or at no cost. Pails and empty
cans used in hauling the fish were shipped back to the Commission for free.
By the early 1920s, fish cars had distributed 72,281,380,861 fish by traveling 2,029,416
miles and their detached messengers traveled an additional 8,104,799 miles.
Fish Cars had played a major role in enriching the nation's natural resources for 66
years when this unique way of life ended.
An early 1900s wooden passenger car has been placed at D.C. Booth
Historic National Fish Hatchery
. With grants obtained from the South Dakota Department of Transportation, the
passenger car has been renovated into a replica fish car.
Wisconsin Commissioners of
Fisheries Fish Cars
By 1892 the Wisconsin Fisheries Commission was shipping almost 45 million eggs, fry,
and fingerling fish around the state from its hatcheries. The fish cars seemed a better
means of safely shipping more fish, greater distances. In 1883, the State Legislature
appropriated $5,000 to purchase a fish car for Wisconsin fish stocking programs.
To transport and stock native fish throughout Wisconsin (the Badger State), the states
fisheries commission was formed and purchased its first rail car, named the Badger No. 1.
It went into service in the summer of 1893. The appropriation for this acquisition was
partly justified to carry Wisconsin live fish to the World's Fair (the Columbian
Exposition of 1893) in Chicago. It remained in use until 1914.The car logged more than
20,000 rail miles per year delivering fish and fry where the Wisconsin rail system
Badger No. 1 was sold to the Canadian government and its whereabouts today are unknown.
In 1912, Badger No. 2 was purchased and used through the 1940's. Its steel construction
and sturdy design could travel on modern rail lines and the train held many more fish than
By the early 1930s, Wisconsin's road system was improving and highways reached many areas
of the state not served by regular rail service. The Conservation Commission purchased two
new fish trucks that could each haul only half the number of fish cans as the Badger No.
2, but required less handling to stock the fish. As rail transport costs rose, more fish
trucks were added to the fisheries fleet, and the end of the fish car era was in sight.
In the mid 1940s, the Badger No. 2 was sold to a private railroad contractor and turned
into a rolling office. In 1960, it was sold to the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society in North Freedom,
Wisconsin, where it rests today.