Westchester’s Old Cash Cow: Ice Harvesting
Harvesting block of cold, hard ice along the Hudson generated lots of cold, hard cash.
During ice harvesting's peak, laborers separated ice slabs on the Hudson.
photo courtesy of New York State Archives
Date: December 31, 1901
A cold wind welcomed New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck as he descended City Hall for the last time. Turning north, the plump, mustached politician could probably see his demise on the horizon. For that was where, on the Hudson River’s frozen banks, the Democrat’s career had melted away months earlier.
Today, little commemorates Van Wyck beyond a parking-lot-like expressway that links the Bronx and Queens. At the turn of the 20th century, though, the mayor’s lackluster career exploded at the frigid core of New York’s “Ice Trust Bust.” Muckrakers had unearthed that the mayor helped create a monopoly for the American Ice Company, which, at the time, was purported to be worth $60 million, a figure equal to about $1.6 billion in today's dollars. (A later investigation found the company was really worth $15 million, or roughly $416 million in today's dollars).
It’s hard to understand the scope and necessity of ice in early America, but the gelid gobs were as lavish and luxurious as silk. Once the Erie Canal opened its locks, the cottage ice-harvesting industry snowballed into a commodity cash cow. Iceberg-sized blocks were cut, stored, and barged en masse down to urban elites.
At the turn of the century, the Hudson River emerged as the source of ice for New York City’s ice market. Thanks to Westchester's ice harvest, fishermen could now better preserve their catches, hospitals could cool fevered patients, and breweries could churn out cold ones all year round. Walking down Fifth Avenue with the newly imagined “Ice Cream” was akin to toting a designer bag. In 1855, 75,000 tons of ice glazed its way to Manhattan. By the 1880s, the figure was 2.5 million tons.
For seasonal loggers, sailors, and farmers, ice harvesting represented a pocket-warming answer to dry winter months. The Hudson River ice industry’s seasonal workforce topped 20,000 at its peak. Beginning in late January, laborers slid above arctic waters to grid out “markers.” Horse-drawn cutters then made ice cakes loose enough to separate with a hand-saw. The blocks were floated in rafts of 12 to 30 cakes toward fortified ice houses, some of which held more than 50,000 tons of crystalline comfort.
Even in summer, harvesters broke ice to load onto Big Apple-bound barges. The reward, however, did not come without chilling risks. Workers were often injured or killed by open channels of freezing water or falling ice cakes that weighed several hundred pounds. As local ice companies condensed into larger outfits—including American, National, and Knickerbocker Ice Companies—risks didn’t freeze over. The Rockefeller-era conglomerates opened glistening plants closer to New York City, boasting automated refrigeration storage and mechanized elevators known to chop off fingers.
For consumers, ice famines froze businesses and swamped insufferable city summers. Heat waves at the turn of the century caused glacial price fluctuations. When the American Ice Company raised prices by a third, fury frosted into panic. New Yorkers responded in riot. The monopoly backpedaled, and it surfaced that Van Wyck had received $680,000 in special stock shares to green-light the price gouging. The mayor’s holdings dwarfed a modest $15,000 salary. As a result of the outcry, Van Wyck was put on ice in 1901, as voters elected reform candidate Seth Low.
By the 1920s, home fridges had thawed ice harvesting into antiquity. Polished plants soon rusted amid suburban sprawl. And once-overloaded barges found themselves docked along Westchester’s shores. Somewhere along the Van Wyck, meanwhile, leaking engine coolant mocks the mayor’s blemished, icy legacy.
Dan Robbins majored in History and American Studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard.