Greene History Notes
When the icehouses reigned
By David Dorpfeld
Greene County Historian
From the middle of the 19th century into the early part of the 20th century, the shores of the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie were dotted with huge wooden icehouses.....
These buildings were used to store ice harvested from the river in sawdust or straw to minimize melting. In the spring workers would begin to empty the ice and ship most of it to New York City for use in refrigeration of food. Today, I do not know of a single icehouse that is still standing. For a time after their usefulness as ice storage facilities waned, a few of these windowless buildings were used to grow mushrooms. At least one, the Armstrong icehouse in New Baltimore, was used in the 1930s as a clandestine place to manufacture bootleg liquor. In the end, they were all torn down or burned. A place in Greene County where one can get a sense of the size of these immense structures is at the Cohotate Preserve about half way between Athens and Catskill. The foundation of the icehouse that stood there can easily be seen and there are signs explaining the ice harvesting and storage process.
In their book “Ruins of the Hudson Valley,” authors Thomas E. Rinaldi and Robert J. Yasinsac describe the icehouses as follows: “Enormous in size, the ice houses were of wood-frame construction, some equal in height to a six story building, with very low pitched roofs. Painted white or beige to reflect the heat, their exterior walls were typically double-layered for insulation. Often their owners’ names were painted on their sides in large letters visible from the opposite shore. So large were these buildings that river pilots stuck in a dense fog were known to find their way by blowing their steam whistles and listening for the echoes off the broad icehouse facades.” The authors also state that by the 1880s there were 135 ice-harvesting operations on the river.
It is hard to imagine the activity that surrounded the ice-harvesting industry. In his book “The Greene County Catskills a History,” Field Horne provides a look at what the scope of the enterprise was like during one decade in the late 1800s: “New Baltimore’s capacity was 267,000 tons in eleven icehouses. Athens reached a total of nine icehouses holding 283,000 tons by 1884, and Coxsackie had 15 icehouses with a capacity of 401,000 tons. A number of large icehouses at Catskill belonged to the Knickerbocker Ice Company of New York. Even tiny Smith’s Landing had five houses with 221,000 tons capacity. Between Catskill and Albany six thousand men joined the harvest each winter.” Every able-bodied man was recruited. Horne quotes Isabella Rainey, former Athens teacher, as saying, “We closed school for two weeks in the winter so older boys could work on the ice.”
A secondary industry, the manufacture of tools for ice harvesting, also developed here in Greene County, but this is a subject for another column. Ice harvesting on the Hudson River peaked around the end of the 19th century. Four million tons were harvested in the winter of 1898-99 and the winter of 1900-1901 was called “the largest and finest to date” according to Horne. Eventually ice harvesting on the Hudson was threatened by a growing problem of sewage from Albany and Troy which was released upstream into the river. Outbreaks of typhoid fever were blamed on contaminated river ice. This led to ice being harvested in lakes and more pristine rivers in places like Maine. In the end ice harvesting ceased completely with the widespread use of electric powered refrigeration and the manufacture of ice under sanitary conditions.
Many people who visit Coxsackie Riverside Park for the first time wonder about the huge chimney across the river at what is known as Newton Hook (called Nutten Hoek by the Dutch). The chimney and powerhouse are the remains of an icehouse that was originally built in 1885 and owned by the R&W Scott Ice Company. The powerhouse was used to drive six conveyors which brought the ice up from the river and into the icehouse. The icehouse measured 300 feet long (a football field in length) and 200 feet deep. On July 16, 1934, the icehouse, long abandoned, burned to the ground leaving only the chimney and the gutted powerhouse. In 1985 the Scott icehouse site was included on the National Register of Historic Places by the U. S. Department of Interior. It was recognized as being, “the most intact icehouse site of the period in the region.” Five years later the land was acquired by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and opened to the public and is now called the Nutten Hook State Unique Area.
The better part of one century is not a long time in the range of human history. That is how long ice harvesting has been gone from the Hudson River. It is hard to believe that in this amount of time — except for a few scattered foundations and chimneys — almost all traces of the ice industry have vanished from the Hudson Valley.
To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail [email protected].