Tag Archives: ice harvesting

When Ice Came from the Hudson River: Ice Harvesting in Staatsburg

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 there into the home?

That feat was the work of an expansive ice harvesting industry, which was active throughout much of the northeast 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.

Workers guide a horse pulling an ice-cutting rig on the Hudson River, circa 1912. (Photo Credit – New York State Archives # A3045- 78_830)

Although Staatsburg in Dutchess County is a quiet hamlet today, it was once a bustling hub of the ice harvesting industry.  Ice was a very valuable natural resource, which required an impressive amount of infrastructure and investment to cut and transport to customers. The labor came from a small army of men and horses.

In the 19th 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 rivers.  Hamlets and towns along the Hudson developed a robust trade to supply the demand downriver in New York City, and export 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. 

Records by two different ice companies reflect the harvests from Staatsburg and Rockland Lake in this April 1866 report in the Rockland County Journal. (Photo Credit – Peter Stott, “The Knickerbocker Ice Company and Inclined Railway at Rockland Lake,” Journal of the Society of Industrial Archeology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1979), page 9)

Some households, like the affluent Gilded Age owners of what today is the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, had the luxury of filling their ice house with ice from a body of water adjacent to their property, but others did not have the same resources and had to purchase ice.

This country estate and 79-room mansion of the very wealthy Mills family frequently hosted parties of houseguests for elegant weekends, and boasted all of the era’s cutting-edge technology and luxurious amenities available, including electricity, gravity-fed plumbing and ice-cooled culinary delicacies.

With a large staff of estate and farm workers, Staatsburgh had the labor needed to cut and store a year-round supply of ice from the Hudson for its own icehouse each winter. A period photograph of the estate buildings at the river’s edge suggests the location of the now missing icehouse: a peaked roof appears behind the double-roofed boathouse complex on the water, and to the right of the powerhouse, which generated electricity for the estate. (While the powerhouse still stands along the riverbank, its chimney, seen in this photograph, no longer exists).

This photo likely depicts Staatsburgh’s now-removed icehouse, its peaked roof visible behind the double-roofs of the boat house, and to the left of the powerhouse and its chimney. This location would have placed the icehouse on the incline of a steep slope toward the river, which was needed for drainage of melt water from the icehouse. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Judging from this photo, the estate’s icehouse sat several yards away from the riverbank, on a fairly steep incline, which would have provided the excellent drainage needed as ice melt occurred during the year.  Icehouses uniformly had a system of drainage at their base, along with insulated walls (often double walls) and interiors carefully designed to reduce humidity (which promotes melt) and provide maximum insulation.  A well-designed icehouse, packed expertly, could provide ice a full year until the next ice harvest.

As seen below, the ice box inside the mansion at Staatsburgh is quite large, meriting an entire room in the basement as part of the house devoted to food preparation.  It bears a brass label reading, ‘The Lorillard 1168 Broadway,’ which identifies its maker.  Lorillard was a company that manufactured refrigeration units from 1877 until approximately 1920.  The company produced some of the most expensive iceboxes on the market which could be found in the homes of wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and the Mills.

The Lorillard brand icebox at the Staatsburgh mansion was top of the line during the Gilded Age. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

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 the “Ice King of Boston,” a man named Frederick Tudorwho between 1805 and 1836, developed technical advances that made ice harvesting and storage profitable, creating a mass 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 in southern states and the Caribbean.

One of Tudor’s employees, 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 in New York State was Rockland Lake approximately 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River’s western shore in Rockland County. Now the location of Rockland Lake State Park, beginning in 1831 ice from the frozen 256-acre lake was transported with the aid of gravity about 150 feet down to the river for shipping to the city. 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. 

A steam-powered inclined railway brought ice from Rockland Lake for shipment to New York City markets. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Despite rapid expansion, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade was consistently outrun by increasing 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 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 icehouses, 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). 

This illustration shows the design of barges made to transport ice down the Hudson River. By 1880, author Henry hall reported that “On the Hudson, a large fleet of barges, built especially for the trade, are employed. There are about 100 of them at present…They carry from 400 to 1,100 tons of ice… A small windmill revolves around the top of the roof [of the cargo house] and drives a pump for clearing the hold of water from the melting ice.” (Photo Credit – Henry Hall, The Ice Industry of the United States: With a Brief Sketch of its History and Estimates of Production in the Different States. SOURCE: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Census Division, Tenth Census, 1880., vol.22, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1888)

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.    

Ice harvesting began in January and on average continued for about six to eight weeks or until the icehouses 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.

The process of harvesting ice from the river involved clearing snow or dirt from the surface with horse drawn plows, and sometimes planing smooth the surface.  The area was measured and then scored into a grid by a horse-drawn “marker,” resembling a plow.  Another tool (Wyeth’s ice plow, or a derivative of his invention) then cut blocks free. The long lengths of ice were then floated toward the shore in an open water channel. Once they neared the ice house on shore, a final cut was made with a 4 or 5 foot-long handheld saw.  The ice was moved into the ice house by a horse-drawn or, later, steam-powered elevator or conveyor belt. Workers used a pole to hook the floating blocks of ice and position them on the elevator.  Inside the ice house, the blocks were insulated by sawdust and hay between layers to prevent them from melting and fusing. When the demand for ice began from March onward, barges carrying anywhere from 400 to 1000 tons of ice would ship the ice down the river to sell. 

A worker uses a hand saw to cut ice blocks , circa 1900. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

 In its heyday, Staatsburg had at least ten private commercial icehouses.  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, fivehorses, 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, 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 million tons of ice, which was approximately 50 percent of the entire industry in New York. 

The icehouse for the American Ice Co. in Kingston. (Photo Credit – Kingston Daily Freeman – February 19, 1909)

In addition to commercial ice harvesting in Staatsburg, one of the most successful companies in the village produced tools for the trade. After J.H Bodenstein (1823-1875) emigrated from Germany, he settled in Staatsburg and started a blacksmith shop that made tools used for ice harvesting.  The business officially became the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works in 1868 and the family business continued for four generations. The family held approximately twenty patents for various ice harvesting and other tools including this one for an ice cutting tool.  A catalogue of their ice tools is found here.

The works sold their products both across the United States and abroad. The business lasted for more than a century before closing in 1984 when all of the buildings and equipment were sold by the fourth generation of the Bodenstein family.  

A catalogue for the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works illustrates a pair of ice tongs. (Photo Credit – J. G. Bodenstein & Co., Catalogue No. 102, accessed from Archives.org

A worker recalls his service at the Staatsburg Ice Tool Wors in the March 14, 1949 edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal.

 Once ice was cut from the river and stored in the ice house, its final destination was the ice box inside individual homes and restaurants, or businesses such as breweries and food transport. After the Civil War, ice boxes became affordable for the working class, which contributed to the growth of the ice harvesting industry.  

The end of it all came into view when the first electric refrigerator for home use was invented in 1913, but it was not until the late 1920s and several models later that the use of an electric refrigerator in the home became more common and affordable.  This rang the death knell for the ice harvesting industry.  Artificial ice was now able to keep food cold all year long and ice harvesting became a thing of the past by the 1930s.

Today the Hudson River rarely freezes long enough to produce ice of any useable thickness so ice harvesting really is a thing of the past in the Hudson Valley.  For a further look into ice harvesting in the Gilded Age and Staatsburgh’s high-end ice box, enjoy the following video from Staatsburgh interpreter, Frank Pidala.

Cover Photo – Workers use ice pike poles to guide blocks of ice through a chip canal to an ice house on the Hudson, circa 1912 (Photo Credit –
Photo: New York State Archives, #A3045-78_834)


Post by Maria Reynolds, Historic Site Assistant/Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Hudson Valley’s Ice Harvesting Heritage

Rockland Lake, a 256-acre spring-fed lake at the foot of Hook Mountain, is today one of the most popular state parks in the Hudson Valley.  Its two golf courses, pool, tennis courts, hiking trails, and ball fields attract legions of people in the summer months, who come to fish, picnic and play in this park along the Hudson River.  And while few people know that the lake once (still might?) claimed to be the home of the world’s largest snapping turtle, there is a growing number of people who proudly point to Rockland Lake’s massive stone ruins along its eastern shore as laying claim to global fame on a distinctly different level, one that is very, very cool.

In 1806, up in Boston, a young and enterprising man named Frederick Tudor cut chunks of ice out of his family’s pond, loaded it onto a boat, and set sail for Martinique, convinced that the world would soon have an insatiable desire for ice in their drinks.  He was a man ahead of his time, and after many false starts, bankruptcies, and even debtor’s prison, his idea finally caught on, and the demand for ice to cool drinks and preserve food spread around the globe.  Rockland Lake, because of its clean spring fed water and proximity to the Hudson River, New York City, and international shipping lanes, soon became the undisputed leader in this new and sustainable industry, and the Knickerbocker Ice Company was formed in 1831 to meet that demand.  What began as a single warehouse to store the ice blocks neatly cut into 20” x 40” rectangles soon became three massive structures capable of containing over 100,000 tons of ice.

ice-harvest-rockland-lake-new-york-historical-society-_flickr
Andrew Fisher Bunner (1841-1897), Cutting Ice, Rockland Lake, N.Y., New York Historical Society, accessed from flickr

A railway was built to convey the ice over Hook Mountain, and included a gravity-fed incline took the cars down the steep face of the mountain to a massive pier, where ice barges on the river were filled and shipped to the city. New York’s “Meat Packing District” was located on the Lower West Side to take advantage of the ice shipped down the Hudson on these barges to cool the meat.  Soon, the ice from Rockland Lake became so famous around the world that imitators sprung up, and even a lake in Sweden was renamed Rockland Lake so that its owners could claim that they sold “Rockland Lake” ice.  It’s hard to imagine that blocks of ice were shipped from a rural New York lake to exotic destinations like Australia and Asia, but for many people and businesses no other ice was as clear and clean as Rockland Lake Ice.

The ice at Rockland Lake was so famous that, in 1900 Thomas Edison Films documented the entire process of harvesting the ice at Rockland Lake, from the horses drawing the ice plows to the workers loading it onto the barges. Watching that film, it is hard to imagine that today the same site is far from the industrial zone depicted in the grainy black and white film.

By the early 20th Century, however, technology had caught up with demand, and artificial ice began to displace naturally harvested ice for most purposes, and while natural ice harvesting continued (and continues today) to be a sustainable source for cooling elsewhere, the harvests stopped at Rockland Lake in 1924.  In 1926, while demolishing the facilities to make way for what eventually became summer cabins and hotels, a fire broke out in one of the buildings whose huge double-sided walls were packed with tons of sawdust to keep the ice cool.  When the smoldering fires were finally extinguished (anecdotally, some said that they burned for over a year), all that was left of the houses were the massive stone walls at the base of Hook Mountain.  Eventually, in the 1950s, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission began buying up private parcels, and in 1965 Rockland Lake State Park welcomed its first guests.  The ruins of the ice house remained, lost but not forgotten.

In 1988, park manager Jack Driver and his wife Barbara led tours of the ruins to those curious about their history and Barbara led volunteers in the successful effort to have the ruins designated as an official Clarkstown Historic Site.  While they managed some success, the Drivers moved to another park assignment away from Rockland Lake, and no proper dedication had ever taken place.  Twenty years later, after jogging past the ruins countless times on the lake’s three-mile paved path, Rockland resident Timothy Englert inquired about the walls, which now contained a tangle of black locust and other trees.  John Burley and Mike Krish, park managers, handed Mr. Englert a manila folder, inside of which was a trove of information regarding the history of the lake’s icy past, as well as official-looking documents attesting to its historic status.  The forgotten folder also contained a faded black and white panoramic photograph of the ice harvesters standing atop the frozen lake, a photo that evoked the pride of place and industry that employed thousands of people during a period of great growth.

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Mr. Englert realized that no dedication had ever taken place. He enlisted the help of Robert Patalano, a fellow Clarkstown resident and professional ice sculptor, who sculpted an 18’ ice replica of the original Knickerbocker Ice house, while Mr. Englert took one of the rot-resistant locust logs and created the Knickerbocker Bench to commemorate the site with something a bit more durable than ice.  On a bitter cold weekend in January of 2007, the Driver family returned to Rockland Lake as the guests of honor at the Knickerbocker Ice Festival, which grew from a few hundred people that first year to over 25,000 people two short years later.  The festival included massive ice sculptures and historic tours.  That first sculpture lasted five weeks before it melted away.

Today, the legacy of ice at Rockland Lake lives on in historic markers placed throughout the ice house ruins at the park.  Rockland Lake isn’t the only State Park where ice was once harvested.  Both Bear Mountain and Schodack Island once also had ice houses of their own.  And while the ice festival is no longer an annual event, the spirit of the ice lives on in the Knickerbocker benches found along the park’s trails, and in the pride of Rocklanders, who can walk into the ruins of Ice House #3 on a hot summer day and imagine themselves surrounded by 100,000 tons of ice.

Post by Timothy Englert, Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, Inc.