The Rio Grande used specialized cars as soon as 1879 to carry perishable goods, at first they were simply modified boxcars. Early models were ventilated boxcars fitted with stock car doors, then from 1881, the Denver & Rio Grande shops built several classes of refrigerator cars (also called reefers). They were equipped with insulated double walls and had ice compartments at their ends, accessible through hatches on the roof. In order to keep the temperature down while the train was running, the hatches were left open to create a flow of cool air through the car. The ice compartments were regularly replenished with fresh ice during station stops, from ice houses where supplies of ice were kept. The trucks of some of these narrow gauge refrigerator cars could be exchanged with standard gauge trucks to avoid transhipments at the limits of the Rio Grande narrow gauge system.
In 1908, the American Car & Foundry built 50 new 30ft long 20-ton capacity refrigerator cars for the Denver & Rio Grande, known as "short" reefers and numbered from 32 to 81. They were rebuilt in 1926 and the last of them remained on the active roster until 1957. Today, D&RGW short refrigerator car #45 is preserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and #55, which was recently rebuilt by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, in Chama. Finally in 1924 and 1926, the D&RGW shops in Alamosa built one last class of refrigerator cars, still made mostly of wood: twenty "long" reefers, with a length of 40ft and a capacity of 25 tons (#150 to 169). They rode on Andrews trucks and were designed to have the same capacity as a small standard gauge refrigerator car, to facilitate transhipments at the gauge changing points. In 1967, 12 of these refrigerator cars were still active on the Rio Grande. Today, four long reefers are conserved on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (#157, 163, 166 and 169), two at the Colorado Railroad Museum (#159 and 167), one on the Georgetown Loop Railroad (#153) and #168 is part of the Sumpter Valley Railway collection.
D&RGW 30ft refrigerator car #55 in Chama on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
D&RGW long (40ft) refrigerator car #163, preserved in working order on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Rio Grande short reefer #45 conserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.
B end of long refrigerator car #159, with its hand brake.
D&RGW long reefer #167 in the orange livery of the American Refrigerator Transit at the Colorado Railroad Museum.
Another long refrigerator car, #159, this time in a faded yellow livery, at the Colorado Railroad Museum.
In Chama on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, long reefer #157 of the D&RGW.
Two Rio Grande long refrigerator cars, in the snow at Cumbres Pass on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.