SLIP - SLIDIN’ AWAY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE RECONSTRUCTION
OF THE HUDSON RIVER ICE INDUSTRY
 
 
 

Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting and Conference of the Council For
Northeast Historical Archaeology
Montreal, Quebec
 
 
 

By

Wendy Elizabeth Harris
 And
Arnold Pickman
 
 

October 1998
 
 


This paper is part of a larger investigation of 19th century Hudson River landscape transformations associated with the development of industrial capitalism. As a result of the opening of the Erie Canal and associated engineering efforts which altered the river’s morphology, the Hudson had become, by the middle of the 19th century, a corridor for the transportation of goods into the port of New York. In addition, these improvements allowed coal, machinery and building materials to be supplied to new industrial facilities established along the River. One of the Hudson’s first industries was the natural ice industry.

Prior to the advent of mechanical refrigeration,  natural ice cut from rivers and ponds was required for food preservation and cooling of  beverages in individual households, as well as in hotels, restaurants and other industries. The rapidly expanding growth of New York City’s population in the mid-19th century created a concomitant increase in the demand for ice (FIGURE 1 - CLICK ON FIGURE # TO SEE IMAGE). Between 1855 and the 1880s, the amount of ice sold annually in the City increased from 75,000 tons to 1.5 million tons (Ice Trade Journal 1883, Volume VI).

The Hudson River ice industry centered upon the harvesting of the frozen waters of the river itself, transforming this raw material into a finished product, standard sized cakes of ice which were stored in enormous ice houses located along the River. In the late spring and summer months the stored ice was loaded onto barges and shipped to the New York City market. By the 1880’s, approximately 135 major ice houses lined the river’s shorelines, inlets and islands between New York and Albany (Hall 1884).

Using the 1891 Beers Hudson River Atlas, Corps of Engineers maps from the same period, and contemporary aerial photographs, we have determined the locations (FIGURE 2) of all of the 72 ice houses mapped at that time along a twenty-five mile reach of the Hudson River shoreline, located between the villages of  Castleton and Catskill, New York. These data have been digitized onto four georeferenced USGS digital topographic quadrangles. The results graphically demonstrate that ice harvesting was a major industry in this portion of the Hudson River valley.

Upon hearing that we were studying Hudson River ice harvesting, a colleague commented that it seemed like an unlikely undertaking for students of material culture - to study a process that produced a commodity that was both transparent and impermanent - a substance that literally melted away leaving no traces. Unlike iron manufacturing, brickmaking, quarrying, lumbering, and other nineteenth century industries associated with the Hudson River, the products and  byproducts of ice harvesting are not to be found in the archaeological record. As archaeologists, we are accustomed to retrieving material evidence of the outcome of a productive process - artifacts that can be examined and categorized by type or period of manufacture. This is not the case with ice. Today, the built environment of this industry survives in the form of structural ruins, rusting hardware and scuttled barges. However, the enormous stacks of ice cakes and the pilings of shaved and discarded ice vanished within the season.

Indeed, until recently the focus of our investigations has been the visual and social implications of the ice harvesting industry and its relationship to the Hudson River landscape. But now that the State of New York and the US Army Corps of Engineers have begun to address the National Register eligibility of ice house complex remains, and have asked that assessments of their archaeological significance be provided, we have returned to the analysis of the ice harvesting process at individual ice house sites. The question now facing us is how best to interpret these sites given the fragmentary nature of the remains and the lack of specific documentary information pertaining to the operation of such facilities.

The ice harvesting industry can be viewed as incorporating an integrated system of production and transportation. Several production subsystems exist including ice harvesting, ice storage, power generation, and ice house loading and unloading. The first of these – harvesting - involved the use of various types of  horse drawn and manual tools (FIGURES 3 AND 4) on the frozen river in order to cut cakes of ice and move them to the shoreline in front of the ice house. Since these activities occurred on the river’s frozen surface, no in situ evidence of the harvesting process is preserved in the archaeological record, although it is possible that some of the harvesting equipment survives at the sites.

The remains of elements of the latter four subsystems, however, are preserved on the ice house sites and will be discussed in this paper. The storage subsystem – that is, the ice house itself - is represented archaeologically by foundation walls, and, possibly, at some sites, by surviving floors and/or floor drains. The power generation subsystem – the machines that supplied the ice house with power and the structures housing this machinery, as well as the loading and unloading sub-systems  -  are represented archaeologically by the foundations of  ice house powerhouses, associated machinery support bases, various internal power house elements, and by support bases for elevators and/or ramps used to load and unload the ice house. The transportation system at the Hudson River ice houses is represented by the remains of docking facilities and barges used to transport the ice to market.

The technology of the ice harvesting industry is well documented in a general sense. Detailed descriptions of machinery and ice house construction appear in various equipment catalogues and trade publications. Photographs, contemporary newspaper accounts, and oral histories are also plentiful. However, comparison of  these sources also indicates that the configuration of the subsystems just described varied considerably among individual ice houses. Additionally, the limited field work conducted to date has indicated the presence of elements not described in the documentary record.  The specifics of how individual ice houses actually operated and the functional relationships among the various components remains unclear.  The task of interpretation is made more difficult due to the fact that virtually all of the houses have been destroyed by fire and most of the machinery removed for salvage. Today sites are covered with dredge spoil and other deposits and obscured by thick vegetation.  The objectives of ice house archaeology include the identification of remains of the subsystem elements, and determination of the extent to which differences in configuration are due to technological, temporal, geographical or other factors. This paper represents a first step in examining the archaeology of the Hudson River ice houses.

Schodack-Houghtaling Island  located some 15 miles south of Albany, New York, (FIGURE 5 was the site of at least 13 ice house complexes.  Three of these, on the island’s southern tip, labeled A, B, and C on the map and  aerial photograph shown here as  FIGURES 6 and 7 are located on land now owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These sites are thus subject to review under Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Our preliminary field evaluation has included the mapping of visible remains and conduct of a limited number of shovel tests. In order to further interpret the observed remains at these sites, we also visited and partially recorded the best preserved of the Hudson River ice houses, the National Register listed  Scott Brother's Ice House on Nutten Hook, on the east shore of the Hudson some seven miles south of Schodack-Houghtaling Island.

Two of the ice house sites which were investigated are located on the eastern shore of  Schodack-Houghtaling Island. These facilities front on Schodack Creek, a channel which separates the island from the mainland. The documentary sources indicate that the southernmost of these, which we have designated as Ice House Site A, was built in 1881 by J. Scott & Company (Coeymans Herald 1881a, 1881b, 1881c). Ice House Site B is also on the island's eastern shoreline, approximately 800 feet north of Site A. Built in 1881 by Peter McCabe (Beers 1884), this ice house underwent a series of expansions until it became one of the largest ice houses on the island. Ice House site C is located on the western shoreline of Schodack-Houghtaling Island, facing the main channel of the Hudson River. It was constructed in 1881 as the Van Orden, Vanderpool, and Sherman Ice House (Beecher 1988). Documentary sources indicate that it too went through a series of expansions. Because Ice House Site A has fewer visible remains, most of the discussion in this paper will focus on Ice House Sites B and C.

At all three sites evidence of the storage subsystem is preserved in the form of ice house foundation walls. Although differing in size, most ice houses had a similar basic structural configuration - a large barn-like building (FIGURE 8divided into smaller internal rooms, with large narrow vertical doors to permit loading and unloading of the ice. By nineteenth century standards these were indeed huge structures, measuring up to 300 to 400 feet in length, with widths of at least 100 feet, and often three or four stories high. The largest had capacities of approximately 60,000 tons of ice.  (Beers 1884:373; Jones 1984:80). The preferred construction material was spruce, and white or yellow pine, because of its durability (Ice Trade Journal 1882). The exteriors were painted a brilliant white to reflect the sun's rays and retard melting. None of the frame superstructures of the Hudson River ice houses have survived. What is left today are the foundations of the interior and exterior walls. Portions of the powerhouses that adjoined the ice houses also survive and these will be discussed later.

At Ice House Site C (FIGURE 9portions of front, rear and interior foundation walls are visible. Walls A and D represent the north-south oriented front and rear exterior walls and Wall E a portion of the remains of the east-west exterior wall of the ice house. Walls B, C and F represent portions of  interior walls which divided the ice house into the various storage rooms. Erosion affecting the northernmost portion of ice house site C, has resulted in the loss of portions of these walls, as indicated by the dotted lines, but has also exposed them (FIGURE 10) without the need for excavation. The lower portion of the foundation consists of cut fieldstones set in mortar. These are overlain with two or three courses of bricks constituting  the upper portion of the foundation walls, which served to support the frame superstructure walls of the ice house.

Examination of late 19th century and early 20th century Corps of Engineers maps indicate that it was enlarged from its original length (FIGURES 11 and 12). Measurements taken in the field, together with the documentary evidence, have enabled us to reconstruct various episodes of expansion.

This early 20th century Corps of Engineers map (FIGURE 13) shows ice house B, with its powerhouse at the north end of the structure. At this site, a more limited portion of the ice house foundation walls is visible than at site C. However, the southern wall and the remains of the powerhouse at the north end of the structure define the approximately  400 foot length of this structure. The western portion of this site is buried beneath a huge mound of spoil resulting from Corps of Engineers dredging of the Hudson River channel.

Documentary sources (e.g. Ice Trade Journal 1882; Rothra 1988:10) indicate that some ice houses were constructed with wooden flooring while others had merely an earthen floor. The very limited shovel testing which we conducted at Ice House Site C yielded evidence of neither. The documentary sources also indicate that ice houses were constructed with a system of drains to carry off the inevitable melt waters. More extensive excavations would most likely enable the details of such systems to be recorded.

At Ice House Sites B and C, the remains of the power generating subsystem are represented by powerhouse foundations, supporting structures for coal fired steam engines and power train components, and other features. Many powerhouses, such as this structure at Nutten Hook (FIGURE 14were constructed of brick. This would have lessened the danger of fire posed by the firebox/boiler system. However, at Ice House Sites B and C,  the power houses were apparently of frame construction. Our field examination suggests that here, a solution to the fire hazard was to enclose the firebox and boiler within a separate brick enclosure.  At site B (FIGURE 15), the walls of a 9 by 20 foot brick structure, which most likely served this function, still stand within the boundaries of the power house foundation. An opening in the west wall of this brick structure (FIGURE 16may have allowed coal to be delivered to the fire box.  The steam would most likely have been conveyed from the boiler to the engine itself through a pipe which passed though the walls of the brick enclosure.

The steam engine would have been located on brick and/or concrete supports within the power house but exterior to the boiler enclosure. Supports for shafts linked by gears or a belt/pulley system would also be located within and/or external to the powerhouse. Such supports (FIGURES 17 and 18were noted at both sites B and C. The locations of the powerhouse , brick enclosure, and supports at site B can be seen on the site map (FIGURE 19).

In examining the powerhouse remains at site C, we noted the presence of an approximately three foot diameter, dry laid stone feature within the powerhouse (FIGURE 20). Its morphology suggests that it functioned as a well. While recording the Nutten Hook power house we noted the presence of a similar feature (FIGURES 21 and 22). These wells may have been used to provide water to fill the steam boiler and/or drinking water for the ice house workers. Since the Hudson River was in close proximity, the reason for the presence of a well inside these power houses is uncertain. However, the location of the well within the power house, where the temperature would have been higher, may have prevented it from freezing during the winter. A worker's account of  life on the ice fields in upstate New York (Rothra 1988) notes that workers usually ate their lunch in the power house because the operation of the steam engine created comfortable temperatures within the structure. In addition, well water may have been sought because it was free of suspended silt which could have clogged the boiler and the associated piping, valves and other components.

Many of the Hudson River power houses had smoke stacks constructed of brick, such as these surviving examples at the  Miller and Whitbeck Ice House site (FIGURE 23), which is also located on Schodack- Houghtaling Island, and at the Nutten Hook Ice House. However, no visible remains of brick stacks were found at Ice House Sites B or C. Close examination of ice house photographs reveals that at some sites vertical iron pipes were used to vent the smoke from the fire box (FIGURE 24). In the case of site C, documentary evidence confirmed that an iron stack was, in fact, part of the original configuration of the facility.

Prior to the availability of commercially feasible electrical motors and generators, power transmission from the power house to the elevators would necessarily have been by means of  mechanical systems utilizing a system of shafts linked by belting or gears. This drawing (FIGURE 25shows an ice house elevator powered by a belting system attached to large pulleys at the top of the elevator. Another drawing (FIGURE 26shows what appears to be a shaft extending from either side of the power house and connecting with a pulley at the side of each of the two elevators shown. This pulley was connected, in turn, with a pulley at the top of the elevator.

We have been unable to discern such power transmission systems in the photographs of the Hudson River Ice Houses which we have examined. Observation of the remains of the Nutten Hook power house by the present authors and others (Stott 1990; Larson 1984) suggests that a shaft or belt passed through an opening (FIGURE 27) in the rear wall of the power house, which was separated from the front wall of the ice house by a space of only a few feet. It is possible that the usual practice was to extend the power train from the powerhouse to the interior of the ice house and to continue it within the structure to the locations of the elevators. This would have had the advantage of protecting the mechanical linkages from direct exposure to the elements.

Photographs indicate that there was substantial variation in the systems used for loading the 200 to 300 pound ice cakes into the ice house and subsequently unloading them into barges. Loading was accomplished by the use of one or more steam powered, endless chain elevators. At the river end of the elevator a floating “apron”  (FIGURE 28was used to enable the crew to load ice cakes onto the elevator regardless of the tidal level.

In a common configuration seen in drawings and prints a separate elevator is located in front of each ice house door (SEE FIGURE 8). The endless chain elevators hoisted the ice cakes up the inclined plane which formed the “floor” of each elevator. Trap doors were cut into the surface of this plane, each of which was positioned  above one of the delivery runs which slanted downwards toward the door of the ice house.  As the ice house was filled, the trap doors in the inclined plane would be opened and closed to enable the ice to be delivered to the interior of the house at the appropriate level. At some ice houses, possibly for reasons of economy, only a single, portable elevator was used. This device was moved from door to door to fill up the various rooms. This would explain the absence of  elevators in photographs of some of the Hudson River ice houses.

Although no remains of the loading system are visible at Ice House Site site C,  this turn of the century photograph (FIGURE 29of this facility shows two elevators. One served the original portion of the structure and the second an extension that was later added. Wooden slides, such as the one shown here, were used to unload the ice. In this photograph it extends from the doorway immediately to the right of the powerhouse into the barge moored at the wharf.  Unloading could also have been accomplished by reversing the elevators.

Another type of system used to load  ice houses consisted of a single elevator in conjunction with a system of slides or “runs” which extended along the front, or in some instances the sides of the ice house, leading to the various doors. Photographs suggest variations of this type of loading system. At some ice houses (FIGURE 30), fixed runs extended across the front of the structure at different heights. Other ice houses employed a moveable system (FIGURE 31) in which a single “run” extended across the front of the ice house and was divided into a number of sections, each of which could be raised and lowered by a pulley system.

Although we have been unable to locate photographs of Ice House B, a series of brick and concrete features (FIGURE 32extending along its eastern foundation wall suggests that a single elevator system was in use at this site, with the features serving as supports for either fixed or movable ramps. The spacing  between the various supports suggests that there are three distinct groups, which may be associated with successive extensions of the ice house (SEE FIGURE 19).

The most visible remains of the facilities associated with the transportation of the ice to market  are the stone filled wharves and bulkheading that extend along the River (FIGURE  33), which once permitted the loading of ice barges. At Ice House Sites A and B, the remains of five wooden barges also survive. The best preserved  is this vessel at Ice House Site A (FIGURE 34). A typical ice barge, such as the vessels shown in FIGURES 35 and 36possessed several distinctive features, including a row of masts or derricks for loading and unloading the ice, and canvas-bladed revolving windmills that powered bilge pumps which eliminated melted ice water from the hull. It was also the largest barge type on the river. However, research suggests that the site A remains are not from this type of  barge, but may in fact represent a coal barge, a late 19th century covered barge adapted for the ice trade, or a smaller and previously undocumented ice barge subtype, such as the vessels shown in this undated photograph (FIGURE 37).

As seen in this aerial photograph (FIGURE 38), ice house sites are still dominant elements of the riverine landscape. Even as archaeological remains,  they  persist as highly visible reminders of the Hudson River’s industrial past. With the passage of time, development of the area will undoubtedly result in the destruction of many of these sites. On Schodack-Houghtaling Island, for example, the State of New York is proposing the construction of a Park which could adversely affect the remains of several ice houses. Corps of Engineers drift removal and dredge spoil disposal projects also pose threats. Like the commodity which they processed, the sites are ultimately ephemeral, and unless recorded by archaeologists,  the sites and the information they contain will go “slip-slidin’ away.”
 
 


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