Walkabout: It’s Nice to Be Ice, Part 1

Cutting ice on Hudson River, 1852. Wikipedia

Read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story.

When it comes to business, there have been many monopolies in American history, as one company succeeds in controlling most or even all of the goods or services in an industry that people need to survive and thrive.

Standard Oil, American Telephone & Telegraph, and U.S. Steel were famous American monopolies established in the late 19th century that succeeded in hogging so much business that they could set prices and demand whatever they wanted because they controlled the markets.

Everyone protested in one way or another, sometimes violently. Eventually laws were passed, and these companies were all forced to break up into smaller companies. That is, of course, a very simplified version of what really happened.

Commodities that are necessary for everyday life are great candidates for monopolization because, well, everyone needs them. Great power and wealth can be found in controlling heat, electricity, water and the like, so it’s no wonder so many tried.

Ice was one of those commodities too, and in the days before electrical refrigeration, or reliable chemically produced ice, the company that controlled ice controlled the quality of life for everyone.

Ice preserved meats, produce and dairy products for shipping, wholesale, retail and home markets. Nowhere was this more important than in large metropolitan areas like greater New York.

The city’s hotels and restaurants were huge consumers of ice. Ice was an important ingredient in the brewing of lager beer, a huge Brooklyn and New York industry. Ice boxes were gaining popularity in homes and were proving invaluable in home food storage.

Ice preserved the dead in morgues and even during the funeral of your loved one taking place in your parlor. Ice was a huge and profitable industry.

The American ice trade began in 1806, when an enterprising Boston man named Frederic Tudor dreamed of shipping frosty New England ice to the wealthy markets in the American South and the Caribbean. People thought he was crazy, but after some trial and error, and interrupted only by the War of 1812, he was soon making a tidy profit.

By the end of his life he was known as “The Ice King” and expanded both his operation and his market, becoming a millionaire several times over.

One of his main sources of ice in the 1840s was the famous Walden Pond, immortalized by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about the ice harvesting, speculating on Walden ice cooling a drink by the Ganges River.

Brooklyn and New York City had their own ice kings. All of the breweries making lager beer in Brooklyn and Manhattan needed lots of ice. In Brooklyn, many of these German brewmeisters bought from August Grill, the owner of the Eastern District’s largest independent wholesale ice companies, August Grill Inc.

He not only supplied local breweries, he also supplied many of the vendors in the Wallabout Market, near his warehouse. Mr. Grill harvested his ice from the same place most of New York City’s ice came from: the Hudson River and the Hudson River Valley.

One of the largest ice companies in New York was the Knickerbocker Ice Company. It was founded in 1831 by John J. Felter, John G. Perry, and Edward Felter. They set up their business on Rockland Lake, near the towns of Congers and Valley Cottage, in Rockland County.

Rockland Lake had the purest and cleanest ice in the entire Hudson River region. When the popularity of the ice became known, other companies started up to harvest the ice from the lake, but Knickerbocker consolidated them all together in 1855.

Between themselves and their former rivals, Knickerbocker had control of the best ice around. They were also smart enough to realize that each of their acquired companies had techniques and tricks of the trade that were worth continuing, and they grew not only in size, but in expertise and innovation.

Cutting ice from rivers and lakes was called “harvesting,” and was simple, yet complex at the same time. The ice had to be at least 18” thick in order for it to be cut, as it had to be able to support men, horses and equipment.

In general, that occurred between January and March, here and in New England. The ice had different qualities. Hard, clear crystal pure ice was valued for table use in homes and restaurants. More porous white ice was used for everything else, especially industrial use. The ice was usually harvested at night, when it was coldest.

Men had to go out onto the river or lake and test for quality and thickness. They swept the ice clear of snow, and then marked it with lines for cutting. The size of the blocks was determined by its eventual destination. Blocks that had to travel the farthest were larger than blocks used more locally, on the East Coast.

Most of the ice blocks for local use were 22” square. The ice was cut with hand drawn saws at first, but by the mid-19th century, horse drawn cutters, which looked like plows, were used.

These cut parallel lines in the ice, like furrows in a field. The long strips of ice were floated out and cut into smaller blocks by with hand saws. The illustration below shows ice being harvested in New York in 1852. The horses wore special spiked horseshoes to keep from slipping, and the men wore cork bottomed boots.

All kinds of tools, from chisels, saws, grapplers and tongs were manufactured to aid in the harvesting. The 20th century saw gas powered circular saws replace the horses, but by that time, the end of harvested ice was almost here.

Knickerbocker Ice was floated down the Hudson to New York City by barge. The ice was protected by layers of hay, and since the cargo lay in the barges, below the water line, the freezing temperature of the water also kept the ice frozen.

In the winter, the barges could be tied up on the pier and the ice off-loaded as needed. But in the summer, the winter harvest was still expected to be intact for all of the clients who needed ice all year long. This meant storage.

Ice houses were constructed to preserve the ice year round. It’s really rather amazing that with no real mechanical technology, this was possible and very successful. Companies like Knickerbocker established ice houses on site, cutting and storing the ice right at the source, for delivery in the City all year round.

By the 1880s, there were 135 major ice warehouses along the Hudson River, employing 20,000 workers who stored over three million tons of ice.

Ice houses were constructed of a wooden shell, insulated with straw, sawdust and wood shavings, which held an inner house, called the powerhouse, also in wood, or sometimes brick. The blocks of ice were piled to the ceiling with no space between them, keeping the cold in.

More straw or sawdust was packed in as insulation. The exterior of the buildings were always painted white or yellow to reflect the sun and to help keep heat from melting the ice.

As the 19th century raced towards its close, New York and Brooklyn, the biggest markets on the East Coast, became huge consumers of ice. Over 285 million tons of ice was consumed by New York’s restaurants, hotels and businesses, more than anywhere else in the United States.

Knickerbocker’s pure ice fields in Rockland County made that area the “Ice House of New York.” Knickerbocker Ice was the largest ice company in the city, but they weren’t alone. By 1897, there was a new player in town. His name was Charles Morse, and he hailed from Maine, where ice harvesting was quite a lucrative industry.

Morse and two other family members had been in the lumber and ice business for years, operating as C.W. Morse & Co. They were already quite wealthy and successful, but Charles Morse wanted more. He first moved to Boston, then to New York City, where in 1897 he opened the Consolidated Ice Company.

He soon overpowered the competition, including Knickerbocker, able to undersell them at every turn. By the end of the century, the major ice companies, including Knickerbocker and Consolidated, were part of a consortium, headed by Morse. He now controlled all of the ice coming into Greater New York City, which had consolidated itself, in 1898.

Morse now had a nickname in the press, the Ice King, having taken over the title from long dead Frederic Tudor. In 1900, the Ice King decided to flex his muscles a bit, and doubled the going price for ice, causing a city-wide panic and protest during the middle of a sweltering summer heat wave.

The resulting price war would affect everyone in the city. The scandal even reached City Hall, and Mayor James Van Wyck, the first mayor of Greater New York City. What happened when the Ice King cometh? You’ll have to read on next time.

(Photograph: Harvesting ice. Library of Congress)

Cutting ice on Hudson River -- Brooklyn History

Cutting ice on Hudson River, 1852. Wikipedia

Cutting ice on Walden Pond -- Brooklyn History

Cutting ice on Walden Pond. Illustration: Waldenpondstatereservation.wordpress.com

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