Before the invention of electric refrigeration, how did food and perishables keep cold, especially during the warm summer months? The answer is ice. Large blocks of ice cut from a river or lake during the winter would keep food items cool all summer. But how did the ice move from the river into the home? To answer that question, we must take a look at the ice harvesting industry, which was active throughout much of the north-east coast of the country (as well as inland, in northern states) between the 1830s and 1920s, and which was dominated for several decades by production on the Hudson River and nearby lakes.
|Ice harvesting on the Hudson, 1912|
Photo: New York State Archives, NYSA_A3045-78_830
Although the village of Staatsburg is a quiet hamlet today, it was once a bustling hub of the ice harvesting industry. Ice was a very valuable natural resource, but it was not free, since an impressive amount of infrastructure and investment to cut and transport it to customers had to be created, along with much labor, by both men and horses. In the nineteenth century, as cities grew in size and population, the demand for ice to preserve food and cool people in warm weather grew tremendously, as urban populations did not have immediate access to frozen ponds and the river. Hamlets and towns along the Hudson developed a robust trade to supply the demand downriver in New York City, and export shipping of ice to other, farther-flung locations. Another significant consumer of ice was the brewing industry, which used ice in regulating the temperature of fermentation so that beer could be made year-round rather than in a limited number of months. As the meat-packing industry grew, it too consumed large quantities of harvested ice.
Some households had the luxury of filling their ice house with ice from a lake or creek on their own property, but others did not have the same resources and had to purchase ice. Now extinct except for nostalgic demonstrations, the ice harvesting industry was a major economic industry in the Hudson Valley during the Gilded Age.
Producing and storing ice had been practiced since ancient times in Asia and other parts of the world, by controlling evaporation, but in America, the impetus for a fast-growing ice harvesting industry, drawing on naturally-produced ice in cold weather, is credited to Frederick Tudor of Boston who between 1805 and 1836, developed technical advances that made ice harvesting and storage profitable, and promoted and developed a market for ice. Through tireless experimentation, Tudor reduced loss from ice melt in storage from 66 to 8 percent, and created markets for shipping his product to southern states and the Caribbean. His employee, Nathaniel Wyeth, patented the horse-drawn ice cutter which was the first tool to cut even-sided, regular blocks of ice. Before his invention, ice was hacked out in irregular chunks, which led to much loss from melt and inefficient shipping and storage. Wyeth's innovation made possible a viable ice industry.
Another premier site for ice production was Rockland Lake, approximately 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River's western shore, and 150 feet above ground level (now the location of Rockland Lake State Park). Here, beginning in 1831, the pure frozen lake water was transported with the aid of gravity, down to the river for shipping to the city, and a steam-driven inclined railway for its transport was completed by 1860. Improved machinery to replace human and horse power continued to be developed throughout the age of ice harvesting.
Despite rapid expansion, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade was consistently outrun by the increase in demand for ice, as populations grew, cities expanded, and industries to feed people increased. Complicating things further, ice harvesting was dependent on the weather, and, as a reporter on the trade in 1880 described, "...in not more than two out of three years is the crop a fair one." An ill-timed week of warmer temperatures or a rain storm could dramatically reduce the ice yield.
To meet consumer demand and surmount the vagaries of weather, inventors were keenly focused on developing efficient artificial ice production and refrigeration. In its heydays--between 1840-1920, however, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade employed up to 20,000 men (and a thousand horses) during the intense weeks of cutting and storing the cold-dependent commodity. Ancillary industries sprung up along the river: barges and ships designed specifically for ice transport, enormous ice houses, ice tool businesses, stables, boarding houses for workers and fields to grow the insulating hay and timber for dunnage (material used to keep cargo in position in a ship's hold).
From approximately 1840 to 1920, ice was harvested from the Hudson River, particularly north of Poughkeepsie. The ice near New York City was not used because, as an estuary, it contained too much salt, which would result in ice that resisted freezing and melted more quickly than the ice from freshwater further north. There were several mergers and buy-outs amongst the various ice companies, so the leading names change, but the Knickerbocker Ice Company became the largest and most dominant one along the Hudson for many years. A competing company in the mid-1860s, the New York Ice Company, had 25,000 tons of ice in an icehouse in Stratsburg [sic] in 1866; the two companies merged the next year.
Ice harvesting began in January and on average continued for about six to eight weeks or until the ice houses were filled. The harvesting season was very limited and ice had to be at least six inches thick to be cut, since melting would have occurred in storage and transit; conversely, blocks too large were unmanageable for workers to transport. Men accompanied by horses, and later aided by steam-driven mechanical devices, often worked ten hours a day and seven days a week harvesting and storing ice. In January 1895, the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News reported that many pack peddlers abandoned their routes to work at ice harvesting. Residents of the mid-Hudson Valley who made bricks or farmed in the warmer months, found good employment in the winter harvesting of ice, while other workers handled the shipping of stored ice to markets in the fall, summer and spring.
|Workers use ice pike poles to guide blocks of ice through a chip canal to an ice house on the Hudson. 1912|
Photo: New York State Archives, NYSA_A3045-78_834
|Ice harvesting, sawing, c.1900-1910|
Photo: Library of Congress
There were at least ten private icehouses located in Staatsburg. Many companies operated in New York City, but had an ice house in Staatsburg to store ice from that section of the river including the American Ice Company, the New York Ice Company, the Mutual Benefit Company and the Knickerbocker Ice Company. According to an article in the New York Daily Herald published February 13, 1874, the Mutual Benefit Company had an ice house at Staatsburg that held 15,000 tons of ice. The company employed 75 men, 10 boys, 5 horses, and a steam engine to fill the ice house. The largest ice harvesting company was the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which was based in New York City, but had ice houses all along the Hudson. Their ice house in Staatsburg held 25,000 tons of ice and they employed over 10,000 men in the region. In 1896 they had a capacity for 1.8 millions tons of ice harvested throughout the valley, which was approximately 50% of the entire industry in New York.
|Ice house for the American Ice Company in Kingston, NY|
Kingston Daily Freeman - February 19, 1909
|Staatsburg Ice Tool Works, J. G. Bodenstein & Co., Catalogue No. 102|
|Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, March 14, 1949, p.6A|
|Lorillard Ice Box at Staatsburgh|