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.

| March 2007

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.