Back when winter was actually winter, the Hudson River regularly froze over. And people flocked to the ice for recreation, including the once-popular pursuit of ice yachting. The sport originated in Europe, but by the 1790s it had become very popular in the HV—especially around Poughkeepsie—which by the mid-1800s had become the ice yachting center of the country. These “yachts” weren’t yachts at all, but small ice boats that people used for fishing, transportation, and in this case, fun. They were first built in 1790 by Oliver Booth of Poughkeepsie, and he’s generally credited with starting the recreational iceboat movement in the United States.
By the 1850s, the boats had become more sophisticated, with the now-familiar triangular frame, jib, and mainsail. Ice yacht clubs began to pop up in Newburgh, New Hamburg, Poughkeepsie, and Hyde Park. The members often competed for awards such as the “Challenge Pennant of America” and the “Captain William Drake Flag.” They also liked to race against the trains that had just started running along the river—the yachts had speed, upwards of 100 miles an hour!
On March 7, 1896, The New York Times reported on the excitement: “In the old days it was custom to race over a long course, the most popular being from Poughkeepsie to New Hamburg and back, nine miles each way. Of recent years, the custom has been changed, and the yachts now keep in sight of a given point. It is an inspiring sight to see a fleet of twenty or more ice yachts, with their white sails sparkling in the frosty air, circling around each other with the speed of the wind. No railroad train can keep up with an ice yacht when the conditions are favorable.”
Like all competitions, this one got the attention of wealthy New Yorkers. In 1869, Commodore John E. Roosevelt (FDR’s uncle) built the Icicle, the largest and fastest ice yacht to date, and in 1871, Icicle beat the Chicago Express on its run from Poughkeepsie to Ossining. Ten years later, H. Relyea of Catskill built an even faster vessel, named Robert Scott. According to a history written by the Chelsea Yacht Club, Relyea made radical design changes. “The reduction in weight and improvement in control was a real breakthrough, and with very few exceptions, all iceboats built along the Hudson were ‘Scott’ boats or ‘wire boats,’ as distinguished from the earlier ‘side-rail’ or ‘wishbone’ type.” After Relyea beat Roosevelt in a race, the Commodore ordered a new Icicle built like the Robert Scott.
The Ice Yacht Challenge the era’s biggest races, was inaugurated in 1881 by the New Hamburg Ice Yacht Club. Archibald Rogers, a neighbor of Commodore Roosevelt, and his boat Jack Frost raced against the Icicle, Robert Scott, and other boats until 1902. This period was the height of Hudson River ice yachting. By 1903, the Carthage Ice Yacht Club listed 69 members and 19 boats. But interest waned in the Hudson Valley during and after World War I, while the sport grew quickly in the Upper Midwest.
It came back in vogue here in the 1960s, thanks in part to Raymond Ruge, a Cornwall architect and member of the Chelsea Yacht Club. The New York Times reported, “When he died in 1985, Ray had transformed the sport from a millionaire’s hobby to a recreation for local townspeople.”
Ice yachting is rare now, but passionate sailors (including Hudson River Ice Yacht Club members) still strap boats to the roof of a car to track down ice wherever it may form, from Pennsylvania to Maine. And here in the HV, they wait for that elusive but transcendent perfect winter day. To learn more about ice yachting, its history, and sailing conditions, visit hriyc.org.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years (now in paperback).