Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Davis, William

William Davis was a pioneer of the refrigerated railcar. Davis, a fish market owner, devised a refrigerated boxcar based on fellow Detroiter J.B. Sutherland’s design of containers with ice and gravity-forced air circulation. Sutherland was the first to patent the railroad refrigerator car, using that terminology, in 1867, however lacked financial support to advance his idea.

Davis’s intention was to build a refrigerated car for shipping fruits, particularly highly perishable strawberries, and when that proved successful, fish, around the Great Lakes region. The growing beef industry also needed a safe means to ship beef across the United States and was anxious for a solution. When George H. Hammond, a prominent Detroiter in the meat packing business whose meat market neighbored Davis’s fish market, expressed interest in the refrigerated car for shipping beef, Davis adapted the boxcar with metal racks to hang the meat over a mixture of ice and salt. The Michigan Car Company used his design to build the first refrigerated railcar for transporting beef.

Before selling the patent to Hammond, Davis died on November 24, 1868 and it was his heirs who sold the patent rights to Hammond on July 1, 1869. While Hammond established a successful meat-packing business, with more than 800 refrigerated cars, Davis’s version did not last long. The shifting of the meat-hanging racks during travel made the invention impractical and even dangerous, sometimes causing derailments. It was up to Gustavas Swift, of meat-packing fame, to improve upon the concept, hiring engineer Andrew Chase to redesign the car for more stability.