What makes a commodity valuable? We all learned in Economics 101 that it’s supply and demand — which, of course, can change dramatically over the course of history. Wars were once fought over salt. It’s now one of the cheapest products in the grocery store. Today, we all have freezers filled with more ice than we can use. But in the 19th century, people paid good money for big chunks of frozen water. And most of that frozen water came from the rivers and lakes of the Hudson Valley.
Freeze frame: Above, workers harvest ice on Rockland Lake near Congers; two of the buildings pictured are still standing today. Below, a worker cuts blocks of ice on Hessian Lake at Bear Mountain in 1926
Photographs courtesy of Palisades Interstate Park Commission
New York City was the nation’s biggest consumer; by mid-century, it was buying 285,000 tons of ice a year. The Hudson River itself — from north of Poughkeepsie all the way to Albany — provided some of the product. But the best ice around came from spring-fed Rockland Lake, which was renowned for its clean, pure water. In 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company was formed; it soon became the region’s largest supplier of ice and a major Valley industry, earning Rockland Lake the nickname “Icehouse of New York City.”
By the 1850s, the company owned a dozen steamboats and 75 ice barges, employing about 3,000 people to harvest and ship ice all over the world. The harvesting typically began in January, when the ice was about a foot thick. A horse-drawn plow made deep cuts into the ice, and teams of men pulled out blocks measuring about two feet by three feet. The blocks were then dragged to the icehouses. These enormous storage units — each of which measured more than 350 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 50 feet high — were located at the northeast corner of the lake. The icehouses could store more than 50,000 tons of ice, most of which stayed frozen well into the summer thanks to wooden walls insulated with sawdust.
When warm weather arrived, the stored ice was placed on inclined railroad cars, transported to barges on the Hudson River, and shipped to New York City. There it was transferred to icehouses all over the city and then distributed to customers via ice wagons.
By the 1880s, about 1,500 ice wagons, including Knickerbocker’s signature bright yellow ones, rattled up and down the streets of New York. Icemen would deliver as much as 80 tons a week, block by tong-gripped block, up narrow staircases to anxiously waiting housewives. The iceman cometh, indeed.
Filling the Ice House, painted in 1934 by artist Harry Gottlieb, depicts an icehouse near the artist’s Woodstock home
Painting courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum
Rockland Lake was the biggest — but by no means the only — ice company in the Valley. The area around Castleton and Schodack, in Rensselaer County, was another big provider, with a dozen or so icehouses located on the banks of the Hudson or the islands just offshore. All this ice brought with it significant social and cultural changes. It helped keep meat, fish, and dairy products safe, improving both food quality and the public’s health. The availability of ice meant that beer could be brewed and stored all year long; more than 120 breweries were up and running in Manhattan and Brooklyn by 1879. And ice was used medicinally, as hospitals dispensed it to fever victims to help lower body temperature.
There was even a market scandal involving ice. In the 1890s, accusations of price fixing surfaced. In 1896, the major ice companies, including Knickerbocker, were consolidated in a national trust; ice prices subsequently doubled, leading to public outcry and ice demonstrations. New York’s mayor, Robert Van Wyck, and other city officials were accused of conspiring to create a virtual ice monopoly, and the public learned that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in the trust’s stock. Not surprisingly, the scandal led to the mayor’s defeat in the 1901 election.
Closer to home, the ice industry contributed to the growth of Rockland County, says Gretchen Weerheim, former curator of education for the Historical Society of Rockland County. “The actual harvest only lasted about three weeks a year, but it gave farmers some extra income in winter,” she says. And it drew seasonal workers, many of whom settled in the area and raised their families there. “Longtime residents here generally have someone who worked in the ice industry or knew someone in it,” Weerheim says.
But many newer and younger residents have no idea there ever was such an industry, she says. “I love the whole spirit of enterprise, that a couple of guys came to the lake and figured out how to make this pure water work as ice. These guys figured out how to make an icehouse that kept ice into the summer, and how to ship it around the world.”
It wasn’t scandal, though, that killed the ice industry. It was electricity and refrigeration. Artificial ice replaced the natural kind, and home freezers meant supply could rise and demand fall. The Knickerbocker Ice Company closed in 1924. In 1926, one of the icehouses caught fire during demolition, and the fire spread and destroyed much of the village of Rockland Lake. The foundation of the ice company remains today, marked by a historical plaque, but not much else exists to remind us of this once-flourishing industry.
With one big exception. Why do you yell at your kids to “close the freezer”? It’s probably because your parents or grandparents used to yell it at you. (They may even have called it “the icebox.”) They yelled because they remembered the days of delivered ice. “You couldn’t leave the icebox open very long, or the ice would melt,” Weerheim says. And that was a big deal in those days.
Photograph courtesy of Knickerbocker Ice Festival
Celebrate Rockland Lake’s historical ice-capades at the fifth annual Knickerbocker Ice Festival at Rockland Lake State Park. This year’s event takes place Jan. 29-30 and features ice carving, local artists and crafters, history lectures and programs, entertainment, a food court showcasing lower Valley restaurants, and the KIDZ Ice Park with igloo building and snow bowling. For more information, visit www.knickerbockericefestival.com.