Ice Harvesting in the 19th Century

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Ice harvesting was a boom business in the northeast U.S. during the mid-1800s.

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Scraping snow from the surface of the ice.

Scribner’s Monthly, August 1875

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Ice: Today we take it for granted as we go to the refrigerator and stick a glass under the chute of the automatic ice cube maker. It wasn't, of course, always so easy. Some of us old-timers remember having to actually jerk the lever on a metal tray to break loose the cubes. 

Before the days of mechanical ice-making machines, folks had to rely on Mother Nature for ice. Archaeologists have determined that the early Greeks, Romans and Chinese stored ice and snow in caves to use during warm weather. These early people even discovered that ice helped preserve food.

In northern climates where winters are cold enough to freeze thick layers of ice on ponds, lakes and rivers, most farmers once had a small icehouse and cut enough ice during the winter to last them through hot weather. But what of the southern gentleman wanting to enjoy a cold mint julep on his veranda, or an English viceroy drinking a brandy "peg" while being fanned by a Hindu houseboy in the sweltering heat of Calcutta? How about the New York City housewife who wanted to keep her milk from spoiling? Tens of thousands of new refrigerated boxcars began plying the nation's railroads during the 1870s. How were they to be kept supplied with ice when they needed to be refilled every 250 to 400 miles?

The answer was to harvest vast quantities of ice from northern lakes and rivers during the winter, store it and then ship it to wherever it was needed during the summer. Beginning in about 1850, the worldwide demand for ice spawned a booming ice harvesting industry, primarily along the upper Hudson River in New York and the Kennebec River in Maine.

Huge wooden storage houses, with capacities of anywhere from 5,000 to 80,000 tons of ice, were built along rivers by various ice companies. Double wooden walls insulated with sawdust kept the buildings cool in summer. Early icehouse operations used horses, mules and oxen to hoist ice cakes, a slow, tedious process. Before long, steam-powered conveyors and elevators, along with slanted tracks (or "runs") made it possible to swiftly move heavy cakes of ice in and out of the houses. Other buildings, such as boarding houses for the men, stables for the horses, boiler houses, blacksmith shops and scale houses clustered around the big ice houses.

The best ice, which brought a premium price, was clear enough to see through. It was created when water was frozen with no snow mixed in. Often however, snow mixed with the water and then froze, resulting in opaque white ice.

The process began when there had been several days of cold weather and the ice was frozen thick enough to support the weight of horses. Horse-drawn scrapers were used to keep the ice clear of subsequent snowfalls, allowing the ice to freeze to a greater depth and remain as clear as possible. When the ice became 12-20 inches thick, it was ready to harvest.

The ice in front of the icehouse was marked off in "lands," approximately 50 feet wide and half the width of the river. The first land to be harvested was the one right under the elevator to the icehouse. As soon as the lands were marked, loose snow was scraped off and moved to the riverbanks.

If the surface of the ice was covered with porous snow ice or dirty ice, it was planed. This was done with a horse-drawn machine with a horizontal steel blade that cut through the ice and broke up the objectionable upper layers. These chips and splinters of bad ice were then scraped away.

Horse-drawn markers then cut grooves into the ice to mark the eventual blocks, which were usually 24-by-30 inches wide. Ice plows followed the markers, deepening the grooves until they were about two-thirds of the way through the ice. Many horses were needed to pull the snow scrapers, ice planers, markers and ice plows, and to carry away the slush and waste ice. A young boy or two was usually on hand with a shovel and a box on his sled to clean up after the horses.

From that point on, the work was done by men armed with ice saws and a variety of hand tools, such as ice hooks, splitting bars and ice spades. With those tools, rafts of semi-cut ice blocks were broken loose from the larger sheet and floated near the shore, where they were separated into individual blocks and maneuvered into the narrow channel that ran to the ice elevator.

The lower end of the elevator was submerged in the water of the channel and, as the blocks were floated into it, crossbars on the elevator chains caught each block and raised it along the slanted elevator. Ice blocks were discharged onto runs through openings at various levels along the elevator.

These runs were slanted downwards and the ice blocks slid along them into the part of the icehouse being filled. As the level of ice in the house rose, the blocks were carried higher and higher on the elevator before being pushed off onto a run.

The blocks were packed in the house with no space between the long sides, but a few inches of space between the ends so the blocks didn't freeze solidly together. The top layer in each house was laid tight together and covered with a thick blanket of hay or sawdust.

During the summer, barges and sailing ships tied up at the icehouse wharfs and the process was reversed. The ice blocks were slid out of the houses, weighed and loaded aboard the ships for transport to any hot spot where they were needed.

Many icehouses burned or were destroyed by floods and windstorms. But it was the advance of technology - mechanical means of making ice - that really spelled the death of the ice harvesting industry. February 1919 was the last time ice was harvested on the Kennebec River, although northern farmers continued to put up their own ice until rural electrification during the 1930s and 1940s made refrigerators common, even in remote farm kitchens. FC

Editor's note: Watch video of a 1919 ice harvest here.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net