The first experimental transport of fish by rail from the east coast to the west was conducted by Dr. Livingston Stone of the U.S. Fish Commission in 1873. In charge of 35,000 shad fry carried in open milk cans, Dr. Stone changed the water every two hours where possible in order to deliver this shipment safe and sound for planting in California. By 1879, due to this first demonstration, fish were being successfully shepherded by railcar across the nation.
Shipping live cargo caused 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" - baggage car specifically equipped for carrying fish.
Altogether the Fish Commission purchased a total of ten "Fish Cars". The first fish car was a wooden baggage car 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.
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 U.S. Fish Commission for free.
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 cars being produced, more efficient equipment was developed also. Milk 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.
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.
The last 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. 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 hatcheries.
Fish Cars had played a key role in enriching the nation's natural resources for 66 years when this unique way of life ended.