Before electricity, Hudson Valley ice helped NYC keep its cool

Ice harvesting on the Rondout Creek, circa 1900. In the late 19th century, the Hudson Valley was home to at least 135 commercial icehouses, collectively capable of storing as much as three million tons of ice during the winter months. (Hudson River Maritime Museum Archives)

If you’ve ever gone for a boat ride along the lower reaches of the Rondout Creek, near where it empties into the Hudson River, you probably noticed the remains of antique barges that lie half-submerged along the creekbanks. It’s a veritable barge graveyard, making a maritime industrial-archaeology expedition out of what might merely have been a pleasant summer paddle. Why so many of them? What were they used for? Why were they abandoned? The answer, in many cases: Ice, ice, baby.

Prior to World War I, the technology for mechanical icemaking and refrigeration did not exist. Perishables were kept in a literal icebox: a double-walled insulated wooden case big enough to hold a large block of solid ice. That ice was delivered weekly – by truck in the 20th century or horse-drawn wagon in the 19th, and carried to your door on a thick insulated pad on the back of a beefy iceman, who hung onto the block with iron tongs. Even after refrigerators came into wide manufacture, many parts of America didn’t have electrical service until the rural electrification projects of the New Deal era. So the icebox remained a familiar kitchen appliance well into the mid-20th century.

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And those iceboxes needed to get their ice from somewhere. If you owned a farm, you could harvest your own ice from the same pond that you used in summertime to water your crops and your cattle. But urban-dwellers had no such luxury. On a larger scale, some industries needed constant supplies of ice: dairies for storing milk products, breweries for keeping beer, railroads for shipping meat, boats on the Erie Canal for sending Northeastern produce to the Midwest and West. Ice was a valuable commodity that needed to be harvested in quantity during its short season, and then stored in places designed to slow down the melting process until the need peaked.

In the late 19th century, the Hudson Valley was home to at least 135 commercial icehouses, collectively capable of storing as much as three million tons of ice during the winter months. At the height of the industry, distribution centers in New York City were shipping local ice to far lands like India and the Caribbean as well as closer to home.

Rockland Lake, near Nyack, home of the Knickerbocker Ice Company, was the go-to source for New York City-dwellers: Being relatively close, the ice didn’t melt much before delivery. North of the salt line, the Hudson Estuary itself supplied a great deal of ice in good winters (meaning cold enough to freeze 14 to 16 inches thick by January). The upper Hudson had cleaner water, so most of the ice was harvested and stored between Catskill and Albany; Schodack-Houghtaling Island alone was home to 13 icehouse complexes.

Lakes, of course, froze sooner and made for more efficient harvesting. In the mid-Hudson, the Binnewater Lakes chain in Rosendale and Hurley served as busy places for the industry, and there’s still a Binnewater Ice Company headquartered in Kingston (though it no longer sells “wildcrafted” ice). Once the rivers thawed enough for boat traffic, the icehouses along the Rondout Creek were serviced by those barges whose remains now lie along its banks.

Harvesting ice was mainly a horse-powered endeavor (which meant that the ice cakes had to be cleaned of horse droppings with formaldehyde before being put into storage). A designated ice field would be scraped clean of snow, marked out in gridlines by a sort of plow, and then gouged more deeply by a horsedrawn blade. Human-powered ice saws completed the process, after which the separated ice cakes would float, prodded with long poles, to their next destination – perhaps a wagon to carry them closer to the icehouse; some larger operations used small steam engines.

At the icehouse, the ice cakes would be loaded onto a steam-powered conveyor, lifted and then slid down a chute. They were stacked atop pallets so as not to sit in water (which would have hastened melting) and packed in straw for insulation until needed. All told, it was a laborious process that supplied plenty of winter employment for farmers and other seasonal workers.

Though ice harvesting and storage remained a profitable industry until outmoded by the wonders of electric-powered refrigeration, 20 to 50 percent of an ice shipment’s weight would be lost to melting by the time it reached its final destination. So why not just ship it straight downriver, before the weather warmed up? Because at the time, the Hudson River was mostly frozen over until spring. Shipping lanes were not cleared on a regular basis until the late 1930s. Ice yachts had the run of the river, but they weren’t much use for commerce – only for sport. Nowadays, the Coast Guard keeps the Hudson open from New York Harbor to Troy with a fleet of three harbor tugboats, the Wire, the Line and the Hawser, which can handle ice up to 18 inches thick, and two icebreakers, the Penobscot Bay and the Sturgeon Bay, which can cut through 30 inches of ice.

To find out more about the history of the Hudson Valley ice industry, visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum at 50 Rondout Landing in Kingston, where specimens of ice-harvesting tools and other artifacts are on display. For more information on this, visit www.hrmm.org.

Further reading on the subject can be found at www.hudsonrivervalley.org.

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