There’s a richness to hanging out along the Hudson River up in Greene and Columbia counties…although anyplace along its stretch through our region’s fine by us — especially if one can spend time exploring the ruins of one of the great old industries that once employed 25,000 men a year in this area… back before the Industrial Age made refrigeration a convenience and not some crazy miracle.
Down a long, leaf-strewn wooded hillside at the Cohotate Preserve outside of Athens, for instance, is a broad expanse of flatlands overlooking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Here, according to records, was once one of the region’s largest of some 135 ice houses…400 foot by 100 foot four story wooden structures filled with ice cut from the river each January, February and March. You can see some bricks scattered here and there, and at low tide note the pilings where a jetty once thrust out into the river for the loading of 100 foot long barges to take that ice down to Yonkers, Manhattan and Brooklyn…and beyond to the West Indies, New Orleans, and far distant India.
Or farther up the river, at Four Mile Point between Athens and Coxsackie, is another willow-lined stretch of riverfront with signs of previous buildings. And old roadways leading back up to the higher lands where one can see the Catskills glimmering in the distance.
The ice industry along the Hudson, started in the 1850s on a large scale, grew from 75,000 tons of ice being used in New York City a year in 1855 to 2.5 million tons 30 years later. Starting small, it started growing under the inspiration of a Boston-based business man, Frederick Tudor, who started buying up ice industries on lakes, and then the river…where it was learned that, north of a certain point around Poughkeepsie, the tidal salt water would flow beneath the river’s surface, leaving several feet of fresh water atop to freeze each winter.
One can see this phenomenon nowadays taking the train to and from New York.
Although some ice got shipped by train, most moved by barge…and only in the latter years of the industry did folks take great steam machines out onto the frozen river to cut ice in massive troughs, floating chunks back to where massive steam-powered conveyor belts would load them into the giant ice houses.
Much of the big work was done on the west side of the Hudson, although eventually the various large islands in the Hudson north of Catskill started to sprout houses that filled each winter, to be emptied out over the seasons that stretched until the river froze again. They said the loss to melting was about 50 percent…unless the house was huge and double walled, with sawdust or wood scrapings for insulation, where that loss could be halved…unless a spark from the engines running the conveyor belts caught the whole thing on fire.
Tragedy was the by-product of this industry that kept local towns alive each winter, when the farms closed up and everyone headed into hibernation. Pay was good, given the odds one faced of getting cut by the giant saws, or swallowed by the ice and sent downstream under it, never to be found again.
“A few days of cold weather are greatly desired by the dwellers along the Hudson River. Some of the smaller dealers are reported to have begun operations. Measurements at Coxsackie on Saturday showed a thickness of from five to six and a half inches, and at that place the fields had been scraped and flooded,” read a short piece from a January, 1884 New York Times from Coxsackie, demonstrating the regular fickleness of the industry. “It is said there is little fear from lack of ice this year, although the weather has been so mild thus far that work is later than usual. Last year the first cutting of any importance was done in the last week of December.”
“Those in Albany and vicinity who cut from ponds and still water have been able to get their usual supply with a prospect of adding more before the winter ends. The dealers who cut on the river have not been so fortunate,” came an Albany Argus piece 30 years later. “Some in this city have not been able to secure a crop; others who cut at Castleton and down the river points have done better. In New York it is expected that the shortage in the Hudson River crop will be made up from Maine and other places. The makers of artificial ice will also come to the rescue and the shortage will thus be eliminated.”
Saws, scrapers, wood planks laid out in massive river-wide grids to show the horse-saws where to start their cuts; it was a brutal business that started once the river got 14 to 16 inches thick. There’d be times where snow cover would be gotten rid of using formaldehyde…or urine, both equine and human.
Now, many moons later, the last of the big brick ice houses in Poughkeepsie, between the Mid-Hudson Bridge and the Walkway Over The Hudson, is becoming a massive new restaurant. And beyond that, a few ruins, visible, but mostly flat sites where the imagination has to fill in details.
Unless one waits for ice cutting season, when a few historic reenactments still exist, albeit on a smaller, farm-use scale at Hanford Mills Historic Site in Delaware County, or Frost Valley YMCA Camp up in the Catskills’ town of Denning, in deepest Ulster County.
Maybe, eventually, someone in Greene or Albany counties will again revive what once kept the old towns of Schodack and Castleton, New Baltimore and Athens, Malden and Stuvesant alive during bleaker days.
It’s a tradition worth remembering, especially during this day when more and more industries start biting the sawdust, as ice once did some 100 years ago.