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From Frozen Pond to New York City Table–The Legacy of Ice Harvesting at Rockland Lake

By the middle of January 125 years ago, some 800 workers and 1,800 horses assembled at Rockland Lake to begin the annual ice harvest, once Rockland County’s largest and most well-known industry. Ice harvested, stored, and distributed by the Knickerbocker Ice Company enabled home refrigeration and hotel cocktails in New York City and beyond even in the warmest months. This article delves into the fascinating history of this winter “crop,” tracing its rise, technological evolution, and eventual decline.

Color lithograph of ice harvesting at Rockland Lake in 1869

The Early Days of Ice Harvesting

Ice harvesting has roots in the early days when farmers utilized nearby springs and ponds for natural refrigeration. Springhouses, strategically built to harness cool water from underground springs, provided a primitive yet effective means of preserving food. The introduction of manual ice harvesting techniques in the 1800s marked the beginning of Nyack’s involvement in this industry.

Spring house/ice house at River Hook in Upper Nyack provided an early means of refrigeration at the farm. The ice house is being developed into a children’s playground. Courtesy of the Friends of River Hook.

Harvesting ice by hand, using saws and axes, was the norm in the early 19th century. Pioneers like Frederic Tudor, known as the “Ice King,” played a crucial role in commercializing ice distribution. The concept of selling ice to southern climates, initially met with skepticism, gained momentum as Tudor began shipping boatloads of ice to warmer regions.

In 1827, Nathanial Jarvis Wyeth revolutionized ice harvesting with his patented horse-drawn ice cutter. This innovation streamlined the process, allowing for larger quantities of ice production. Wyeth’s “plow” etched a deep, regular rectangular grid on frozen ponds and rivers, enabling the creation of uniform ice blocks. This marked the birth of a new industry that would shape the Nyack areas economic landscape.

Transformation of Ice Harvesting Techniques

The evolution of ice harvesting techniques brought about not only efficiency but also a shift in the scale of production. Larger companies, like the Knickerbocker Ice Company at Rockland Lake, emerged later in the century, dominating the business, and contributing to Nyack’s economic growth.

“Modern” ice harvesting techniques explained in 1869.

The advent of large double-walled ice houses lined with sawdust allowed for the strategic stacking of gleaming ice blocks. This newfound efficiency facilitated the transition from small-scale local distribution to broader commercial operations.

A view of large ice houses that replaced the smaller original ones on the northeast corner of Rockland Lake in 1900. In the center between the two, the Continental Hotel in Rockland Lake Village is visible. The building still stands. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Early Ice Companies at “The Pond” (Rockland Lake)

The spring-fed pristine waters of Rockland Lake and nearby Swartwout Pond, itself made by damming Rockland Lake’s outflow brook, offered ideal conditions for ice harvesting. The entrepreneurial spirit of individuals like C. R. Wortendyke, Nathanial Barmore, and John Felter, led to the formation of enterprises dedicated to harvesting and storing ice.

Recognizing the purity of Rockland Lake ice, the Astor House, New York’s first luxury hotel, listed it on their menus in 1836, turning it into the most sought-after ice brand in the city. Barmore, Felter & Company solidified its position through strategic acquisitions and renaming the company “Rockland Lake Ice.”

The success of Barmore, Felter & Company was not without its challenges, with legal disputes over ownership rights to sections of the lake. However, the company’s commitment to providing unpolluted ice made it a preferred choice for consumers.

Knickerbocker Ice Company: Dominance, Monopoly, and Challenges

In 1855, three competing Rockland Lake ice companies joined forces to form the Knickerbocker Ice Company, aiming to “collect, store, and preserve ice for transport to the City of New York.” This strategic collaboration marked a turning point in the ice industry’s consolidation.

Ad showing a Knickerbocker Ice Company delivery wagon in New York City. Courtesy of Facebook Group Loyal Order of Ice Harvesters

The Knickerbocker Ice Company’s investment in large ice houses storing over 100,000 tons and a cleverly designed ice train along the northeastern lake shore solidified its dominance, serving over one-third of the demand for ice in New York City and Philadelphia. The brand’s recognition even led to imitation by a Norwegian ice company.

An Ingenious Ice Railway

Photo showing the Ice chute from Rockland Lake upward to the village. At the top on the right side is the Continental Hotel, the large white building. Smoke is coming from the powerhouse that drives the ice chute. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

A mechanized and gravity-fed ice railway and train system solved the problem of how to get ice from Rockland Lake over the brow of the Palisades to the Hudson River. The first step involved manually loading ice from ice houses onto “cars”. Horses pulled the cars to the end of a wooden chute leading up to the Village of Rockland Lake. A nearby engine house provided power to pull the cars up the chute. 

Post card showing the ice train down to the Hudson River at Rockland lake Landing. Courtesy of the Facebook group Loyal Order of Ice Harvesters.

Ice Chute to Hudson River

A second Postcard showing the ice train chute from the perspective of the Hudson River docks. An “ice car” can be seen at the foot of the tracks. To the left is Wilson Foss’s trap quarry quarry. Ice workers often moved over to trap quarrying in the summer.

At the end of the chute, horses pulled the ice-laden cars through the village to a platform leading to an even longer, 1,000-foot wooden chute on the brow of the mountain some 280 feet above the Hudson River. Gravity carried the cars downward and powerful brakes stopped the cars at a loading deck. Workers loaded the ice onto waiting Knickerbocker Ice Company barges made at Nyack shipyards by George Dickey. About 1,000 delivery men using 500 wagons distributed the ice in New York City. This efficient system allowed ice to be delivered year-round.

Barges line the docks at Rockland Lake Landing at the foot of the ice train. Rockland Lake Landing Light can be seen in the background.

Ice Famines & Monopolies

Warm weather in 1890 led to an ice famine, compelling Knickerbocker to “import” ice from upstate and as far away as Maine to meet demand. This challenging period resulted in the company’s acquisition by Charles Morse in 1891.

In the summer of 1911, the Knickerbocker Ice Company faced charges of being a monopoly and profiteering during a heat wave. Despite public outcry and editorials against the company, the controversy subsided with the end of the heat wave.

Edison’s Movie of Ice Harvesting at Rockland Lake

This six-minute 1902 movie, one of the earliest made by Edison, shows three stages of harvesting and moving ice. The first two minutes show ice cutting. The ice houses can be seen in the background of some frames. The next third depicts locating the ice hoses. The last section shows unloading the ice from the houses into cars and then being sent down the ice chute to Rockland Lake Landing. While some of the process is mechanized, it still required immense amounts of manual labor.

Ice Harvesters: Life and Work

The success of the ice industry relied heavily on the diligent efforts of ice harvesters or “ice fishers.” Numbering between 700-800 during the peak of the Knickerbocker Ice Company, these workers endured wet, cold, and hazardous conditions to meet the demand for natural ice.

The wet and cold nature of ice harvesting presented numerous challenges and risks. Accidents, from crushed limbs to tragic incidents involving workers and horses, were not uncommon. Despite the hardships, ice harvesting remained a lucrative occupation.

In 1907, Josephine Hudson shattered gender norms by becoming the first woman ice harvester. Her remarkable feat highlighted the diverse workforce in this challenging industry, challenging societal expectations.

The End of an Era: Decline and Demise

The decline of ice harvesting culminated in 1924 when operations ceased at Rockland Lake. Demolition efforts in 1926 inadvertently led to a fire that engulfed the entire operation, posing a threat to the village.

As the ice houses were being demolished, a huge fire broke out fed by sawdust used to insulate ice, burning down the entire operation and posing a significant threat to the Village of Rockland Lake. This marked the end of an era for ice harvesting.

Nyack Evening Journal headline April 20, 1926

Despite the decline in natural ice demand, the Knickerbocker Ice Company adapted to the times. By 1928, it transitioned to manufacturing ice in 10 different plants in Brooklyn, using New York City tap water.

The Legacy of Ice Harvesting at Rockland Lake

Today, the once-vibrant ice harvesting industry at Rockland Lake is but a distant memory. Recent Knickerbocker Ice Festivals, featuring ice sculptures and celebrations, attempt to keep the legacy alive. As warmer winters prevail, ice festivals become rarer, and the rich history of ice harvesting fades further from collective memory. The evolution from manual harvesting on frozen ponds to large-scale commercial operations reflects not just technological advancements but also the resilience of a community that thrived on the bounty of its icy winters.

Ice sculpture by Robert Palatino at the 2016 Knickerbocker Ice Festival at Rockland Lake.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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