When it came to transportation on the river in the winter, the boats often remained in the water as long as possible. In the days of wooden boats, some of the heavier boats’ hulls were reinforced with iron to enable them to break through the ice. Ferry services continued as long as they were able to break through the ice with their heavy iron or steel hulls. Larger tugboats pulled barges as long as their iron or steel hulls could navigate through the ice. Commercial vessels like tugs and barges were not removed from the creeks or river in the winter, but spent the season frozen in along the shores. In the 20th century, with the formation of the Coast Guard, their steel vessels patrolled the Hudson, breaking ice and looking out for boats that needed help.
The ice had to be eight to twelve inches thick for optimal harvesting. Employing seasonal workers like fishermen, tug boat men, farmers, brick yard and quarry workers, and anyone else willing to brave the weather for some wintertime income, ice harvesting was an enormous business. Blocks of ice weighing upwards of 300 pounds were packed floor to ceiling in enormous ice houses and packed with marsh hay, or other insulators to keep the ice frozen until summer, when it would be loaded onto barges and headed south for New York City and locations as far away as the Caribbean and India.
The use of natural ice declined with the onset of both electric refrigeration and the use of electricity to create artificial ice, which was deemed to be purer and cleaner. Ice harvesting for personal use did continue on many of the Hudson River estates and in rural areas. In the 1930s some people were using gasoline-powered mechanized ice harvesting equipment, but horse-drawn and human-powered equipment was the norm for nearly one hundred years.
The enormous wooden stern steerer ice boats would be taken apart and stored in barns and outbuildings all year, just waiting for the winter ice to be thick enough for the ice boating season. Ice boats are extremely fast due to the lack of friction on their metal-capped wooden runners. Powered by the wind, the largest ice boats can top out at over 100 miles per hour. They were once the fastest vehicles on earth. Old stern steerers still exist today along the Hudson and when the ice gets thick enough on Tivoli Bay or Orange Lake or, best of all, the Hudson, you’ll find enthusiasts braving the icy cold winds for an exhilarating ride.