A haunting reminder of the heyday of Bill Harrah’s reign on the local scene remains visible – albeit fading, like its memory – high on the wall of a fairly substantial brick building south of the train yard in Sparks. Harrah’s Automobile Collection the fading white block letters read. Many of us remember fondly the acres of painstakingly-restored cars in that building and the warehouses adjoining it, the Ford Tri-motor airliner stored there, the most comprehensive automotive library in the land, vintage wooden speedboats, and the streetcars that Harrah acquired to eventually rim the collection. (When the collection was first moved there from its original location on Lake Street in 1961, the admission was a buck and a business card.) Sadly, in the  years since he passed away  the heart of the collection has been decimated, and the building’s one-time incredible lore is lost on many Homefinders and tourists as they view it from John Ascuaga’s Nugget. I’ll save recollections of the HAC for another day, and I have many. This morning the test following the column will be about the building itself.
To weave this tale about the building, necessity requires reciting several givens: California, the late 19th century, was the produce supplier to the nation. The predominant rail carriers were the Union Pacific and Central, later Southern Pacific Railroads. And produce, to be taken anywhere once it’s plucked, must be refrigerated. But this column is not about railroads or veggies.
Produce grows in the summer, while ice, much to the consternation of the Pacific Fruit Express, a conglomerate owned by the two railroads, forms in the winter. Others have explored the great heritage of our neighboring town of Truckee, and its confluence of ungodly freezing temperatures, its proximity to the Truckee River, and to sawmills, which produced sawdust as a byproduct, which is dandy for storing ice in once it’s been harvested from lakes like Boca Reservoir. Properly stored, ice survived frozen well into the summer months. But this column is not about Truckee’s rich heritage either.
The growing volume of produce being moved by the PFE and the lengthening of the growing season due to improving irrigation management began to deplete the harvested ice ‘way too early in the season to allow safe shipment. Ice production became a mandate. The PFE elected to build thick-walled buildings to manufacture and store ice in along the waypoints of their rail route. The granddaddy of PFE icehouses was in Roseville, California on the west threshold of the Sierra, and a smaller facility was planned adjoining the SP’s railyard in Sparks. And here I better mention, just to keep Curt Risley happy, that the PFE, which operated autonomously apart from the Southern Pacific, bought ranch land from Curt’s grandfather, along Glendale Road at Stanford Way (named for railroad magnate Leland Stanford, natch.)
The main building was erected by PFE in 1920; additions to the compressor and tank rooms were made in 1924, along with a bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, cookhouse, dining room and a well house. The plant could manufacture 330 tons of ice daily in the sub-freezing building (I recall reading once that when the facility was operating full-bore it was Sierra Pacific Power’s largest electric customer.) Peak storage was 19,500 tons of ice, but the typical daily storage was 150 tons, with another 150 tons stored at the dock.
Old-timers can remember a roofed white wooden platform extending 1,800 feet in both directions from the icehouse, which could accommodate 86 produce cars on either side – 172 cars could be iced at once. The ice was delivered to the long icing platform by conveyor and then along its length by a conveyor chain. The conveyor delivered 37 300-pound blocks a minute (an ice-forming mold is on display in the Sparks Heritage Museum.)
When the trains were spotted, the men – all PFE employees – would slide the blocks off the delivery conveyor onto a hinged section of planking that could be dropped onto the edge of the hatch on the boxcar being iced. (The cars had bunkers in both ends.) The icing crew was usually 20 men, two men working on each car.
In the early 1950s small-scale diesel engines and refrigeration equipment had reached a point of cost and reliability that made it realistic to equip produce cars with individual refrigeration units, and boxcar icing began to go by the boards. By 1958 the yellow PFE rolling stock had been converted to mechanized refrigeration, the Sparks PFE icehouse was closed, and the long icing platforms were dismantled.
And in downtown Reno, Bill Harrah, whose auto collection was growing by Maxwells and Reos, struck a deal with the Southern Pacific/PFE and created the best all-afternoon two-dollar show in town for families and auto collectors alike, a civic treasure that would endure for two decades.
Many thanks to the late Reno railroad historian Dale Darney, for his help and research on this yarn…
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