by Mike Hays
During the Gilded Age, Rockland Lake ice, known for its purity, was so beloved in New York City that it was sought out by name for cocktails in the fanciest hotels. Ice was used in homes for refrigeration, for beer making, and for packing meat and fish. The demand for ice was so huge in New York City that ice harvesting, so named because it was a winter “crop”, became one of the largest and most important local industries in Nyack and Rockland Lake.
Ice was first harvested from ponds in and near Nyack, and it became an important cash crop in the 1830s. With more “modern” harvesting and storage techniques, larger companies such as the Knickerbocker Ice Company at Rockland Lake came to dominate the business later in the century. Like milk men, ice men distributed ice direct to local homes through companies like the Nyack Ice Company. The story of the rise and fall of the Rockland Lake ice industry parallels so many industries from the Gilded Age.
A Brief History of Ice Harvesting
Farmers in northern climates once took advantage of nearby springs and ponds for natural refrigeration to preserve food. Springhouses were built to take advantage of cool water flowing from underground springs. Ice huts were built above pits dug to hold ice harvested from those lucky enough to have a nearby pond. Ice was harvested by hand using saws and axes. Excess ice was sold in chunks by the “bushel.”
In the early 1800s, Frederick Tudor of Boston, who became known as the “Ice King,” started the first commercial distribution operation. Tudor’s family enjoyed cool drinks in the summer, using ice from the family icehouse. Tudor came up with the idea of selling ice in southern climates. People thought he was crazy. Taking advantage of empty ships heading to southern ports, he began shipping boatloads of ice. He lost money at first, but the idea caught on. People from warmer climate began to rely on northern ice for cooling drinks of all kinds.
In 1827, Nathanial Jarvis Wyeth patented an invention of a horse-drawn ice cutter, which revolutionized ice harvesting. He teamed up with Tudor to produce large quantities of ice. Wyeth’s simple “plow” etched a deep, regular rectangular grid on frozen ponds and rivers. Horse drawn cutters, manual saws, iron rakes, and bars were used to separate the rectangles. Uniformity of blocks meant they could be stacked and stored judiciously, eliminating melt and drippage that plagued axe-hacked ice. Large double-walled ice houses lined with sawdust could then be filled with gleaming ice blocks. A new industry was quickly born.
How Ice Was Harvested
Just as in hockey and skating, snow has to be cleared from the surface of the ice, which should be at least 6 inches deep and 8 inches or more for transportation. A Wyeth-style horse drawn ice marker with a serrated blade made rectilinear grooves in the ice. Then, in large scale operations, a series of horse drawn ice cutters with tempered steel blades would each cut a 5/8” groove along the ice cutter’s mark. Each succeeding blade would deepen the groove. Ordinary saws, bar forks, and ice-spades were used to separate a large section of up to 360 blocks of ice.
Ice men with hand tools would float these large sections along a canal until they were near a “feeder” canal. The blocks, usually about 32 by 22 inches, were separated by hand, and a “feeder” would put them on a mechanical tramway carrying the blocks into the icehouse. The top of each block was technically trimmed so that each block was the same height. Once inside, the blocks would be stacked in ever-deepening rows until the house was filled.
During the summer months, ice was unloaded from the ice houses and transported on a unique “ice train” that carried ice up and over Rockland Lake Village and then down an ice ramp to waiting barges on the Hudson River. Ice was also transported via a special train line from Rockland Lake to the West Shore Railroad line in Congers.
Cutting & Canaling Ice – A 1902 Thomas Edison Movie
In one of the earliest outdoor movie shoots, the Edison company made 3 shorts films showing ice harvesting at Rockland Lake. The first shows the various techniques in cutting the ice and moving it to the ice house ramp. Note that the person using the marker is on skates.
The Nyack Ice Company
The Nyack Ice Company was formed sometime before 1860 by James Smith. In 1869, the company was purchased by the Lydecker and DePew families. Ice was sourced from Lydecker’s ponds that were created when Lydecker enlarged and deepened the natural spring-fed ponds along what is now Rt. 59 in Central Nyack. 2 streams led from the ponds, one leading downhill into Nyack called the Mill Brook or Nyack Brook, and a smaller stream that headed west to a branch of the Hackensack River. Ice houses were built along the south side of the pond abutting upper Main St.
Even while it was used as a pond for ice harvesting, people of all ages would skate on the frozen pond. Affectionately known as the skating pond, it survived until the Thruway and the West Gate Inn were built.
John Felter acquired the company in the 1880s, sourcing ice from Lydecker’s pond, ponds along Mountainview Ave., and a pond in Mount Moor (now West Nyack). Felter was one of the first to start producing ice by mechanical means at an icehouse in 1892 at a new icehouse at the corner of Clinton and Franklin Aves.
It was a smart move, as some winters proved to be too warm to yield pond ice of sufficient thickness.
Early Ice Companies at “the Pond”
Rockland Lake and nearby Swartwout Lake were sources of pure, clear mountain spring water, ideal for home ice needs. Around 1826, C. Wortendyke of New Jersey cut several boat loads of ice from the pond to ship to New York City. In 1831, Nathanial Barmore, John Felter, and Peter Gasque started up a new enterprise harvesting ice on the lake. Ice was stored underground, then shipped to NYC in the summer.
In 1836, a company was formed called Barmore, Felter & Company. A dock and icehouse were built at Slaughter’s Landing below Rockland Lake on the Hudson River. Storage facilities were also acquired in Greenwich Village.
Unpolluted ice was an exception in NYC since most Manhattan ice sources came from polluted ponds and streams. In 1836, New York’s first luxury hotel listed Rockland Lake ice on their menus and Rockland Lake quickly became the most sought-after ice brand. The name Rockland Lake was itself a new invention. Previously the lake was known by locals as “The Pond” (Native Americans referred to it as Quaspeck, spelled variously). But “The Pond “was not a marketable name and eventually it was renamed Rockland Lake ice.
Barmore eventually bought out his partners and with his brother-in-law Moses G. Leonard beat out other competitors who were also harvesting ice from Rockland Lake. Many land disputes were fought in court over who held the rights to sections of the lake until the courts decided that the lake itself was public property.
Knickerbocker Ice Company
In 1855, 3 competing Rockland Lake ice companies banded together and incorporated as the Knickerbocker Ice Company to “collect, store, and preserve ice for transport to the City of New York.” Investment in large ice houses along the northeastern lake shore and an ingeniously designed ice train that moved ice from the lake over the clove and downhill to waiting Hudson River barges meant that thousands of tons of ice could be shipped annually. Knickerbocker Ice Company absorbed other ice harvesting operations along the Hudson River until it was serving over 1/3 of the demand for ice in New York City and Philadelphia. The brand was so well known that a Norwegian ice company copied the name.
In 1911, the company was charged with being a monopoly and profiteering after they raised prices during a heat wave. New York City newspapers wrote editorials against the company and the District Attorney worked to declare the company a monopoly. The company defended their brand with lengthy ½ page newspaper ads. When the heat wave ended so did the public clamor.
The Ice Famine
Many winters were so warm that ice either didn’t form or was too thin to harness. 1890 was one such year. Knickerbocker had to “import” ice from upstate and from as far away as Maine to meet demand. As a result of the famine, the company was bought by Charles Morse in 1891 and became part of the new formed American Ice Company.
Ice harvesters, or “ice fishers,” as they were sometimes called, numbered some 400-600 during the halcyon days of the Knickerbocker Ice Company. Workdays started at 4a. It took some 3 weeks in January and February to fill the ice houses. Some of the ice was sent by train via a spur from Rockland Lake to Congers. The rest was held until the Hudson River was ice free for shipping to NYC.
Wages were good although ice fishers often struck for more pay. Once, when pay was cut, they decided to work an extra hour every day. Aside from the fishers, the company employed mechanics, horsemen, and boatmen. Even as the market for natural ice declined in the beginning of the 20th century, ice harvesting was a good occupation.
In 1907, Josephine Hudson got a job with the company by disguising her long hair, becoming the first woman ice harvester. Her house still stands on the northeast side of the lake.
The village of Rockland Lake grew as ice harvesting expanded. A trap rock quarry was started in 1872 at Slaughter’s Landing to take advantage of workers who were not otherwise employed in the warmer months.
The work of ice harvesting was wet, cold, and hazardous. Accidents of all sorts happened. Limbs were sometimes crushed while moving heavy blocks of ice. In 1869, 11-year-old Orlando Jordan slipped while carrying a bale of hay to a barge and was run over by the ice train, mutilating his leg. Policeman John Barnes, who was helping the pay agent, James Nichols, keep the men in line on payday, accidentally shot himself and hit Nichols in the stomach, killing him. Horses suffered as much as the men from the difficult work.
In the summer months, a lucky 80 or so employees worked 12-hour days to move ice from the ice houses to barges on the Hudson River for shipment to NYC. The men loaded a boat a day with about 2,000 tons of ice.
As demand for natural ice declined so did ice harvesting. In 1924, harvesting ceased at Rockland Lake. While the houses were being demolished in 1926, the workers accidentally started a fire that burned down the entire operation and threatened the village.
The Knickerbocker Ice Company continued in business for many years. By 1928, they were manufacturing ice in 10 different plants in Brooklyn using NYC tap water.
Knickerbocker Ice Festival
Today, ice harvesting is a distant memory. Only a discerning few can find traces of the old ice train chute and foundations at Rockland lake. Some years ago, the Knickerbocker Ice Festival took place at the lake, featuring an ice sculpture by Robert Patalano and Tim Englert of a Knickerbocker ice wagon with horses out of 60 300-pounds blocks of ice. Sadly, warmer winters make ice festivals a rarer event and ice harvesting recedes ever further from our collective memory.
- Nyack People & Places: The Ice Train Cometh
- Nyack People & Places: Nyack Ice Company
- Nyack People & Places: The Nyack Skating Pond
Special thanks to Robert Patalano for sharing his Knickerbocker Ice Company archive of photos and memorabilia and for being a true ice man.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.