Rockland Lake and the Hudson Valley Ice Industry
Before refrigerators and freezers, the Hudson Valley, particularly Rockland Lake, supported a thriving ice industry
A modern-day ice harvest at Rockland Lake
Photograph by Tim Englert
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What makes a commodity valuable? We all learned in Economics 101 that it’s supply and demand — which, of course, can change dramatically over the course of history. Wars were once fought over salt. It’s now one of the cheapest products in the grocery store. Today, we all have freezers filled with more ice than we can use. But in the 19th century, people paid good money for big chunks of frozen water. And most of that frozen water came from the rivers and lakes of the Hudson Valley.
Freeze frame: Above, workers harvest ice on Rockland Lake near Congers; two of the buildings pictured are still standing today. Below, a worker cuts blocks of ice on Hessian Lake at Bear Mountain in 1926
Photographs courtesy of Palisades Interstate Park Commission
New York City was the nation’s biggest consumer; by mid-century, it was buying 285,000 tons of ice a year. The Hudson River itself — from north of Poughkeepsie all the way to Albany — provided some of the product. But the best ice around came from spring-fed Rockland Lake, which was renowned for its clean, pure water. In 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company was formed; it soon became the region’s largest supplier of ice and a major Valley industry, earning Rockland Lake the nickname “Icehouse of New York City.”
By the 1850s, the company owned a dozen steamboats and 75 ice barges, employing about 3,000 people to harvest and ship ice all over the world. The harvesting typically began in January, when the ice was about a foot thick. A horse-drawn plow made deep cuts into the ice, and teams of men pulled out blocks measuring about two feet by three feet. The blocks were then dragged to the icehouses. These enormous storage units — each of which measured more than 350 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 50 feet high — were located at the northeast corner of the lake. The icehouses could store more than 50,000 tons of ice, most of which stayed frozen well into the summer thanks to wooden walls insulated with sawdust.
When warm weather arrived, the stored ice was placed on inclined railroad cars, transported to barges on the Hudson River, and shipped to New York City. There it was transferred to icehouses all over the city and then distributed to customers via ice wagons.
By the 1880s, about 1,500 ice wagons, including Knickerbocker’s signature bright yellow ones, rattled up and down the streets of New York. Icemen would deliver as much as 80 tons a week, block by tong-gripped block, up narrow staircases to anxiously waiting housewives. The iceman cometh, indeed.