Tugboats are, and long have been, the workhorses of the Hudson River moving needed cargoes up and down the river in large quantities more cheaply than by other means. Today the tugs move bulk cargo like fuel oil, cement, crushed rock, and scrap metal. In earlier times the cargoes were somewhat different, but tugs have been needed going back well into the 19th century. Since demand for many products is year round, the tugs must work all year including during the winter when ice can freeze the river entirely.
Since about the 1940s, the U.S. Coast Guard has kept a channel open on the Hudson during winters of heavy ice. However, before that time, heavier commercial tugs from companies like Cornell were used as icebreakers in their home areas. As the accompanying photo shows, in severe winters in the early 20th century, even the best icebreaker tugs were not able to keep a channel open in the Hudson.
As the ice began to encroach on the Hudson River each year, many activities – fishing, shipping goods, passenger service – ceased. But unlike today, the coming of ice did not mean an end to all activity. For the Hudson River, winter was just another season of work and play.
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.
As the Hudson gradually froze over completely and the ice thickened up, it was time for ice harvesting. Begun in the early 19th century on Rockland Lake to service New York City, the demand for ice soon outstripped the capacity of local freshwater lakes in New York and New Jersey to provide enough ice. Areas on the Hudson beginning around Kingston became the perfect place to harvest natural ice. Well above the salt line (south of Poughkeepise), and located where the river widens with easy shore access, Kingston became prime ice harvesting territory featuring enormous white and yellow wooden ice houses up and down the shores of the Hudson and the Rondout Creek. Over time ice harvesting expanded further north to Albany and beyond.
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.
To cut ice, the area in front of the ice house was marked off into a grid by an ice plow very much like a farmer’s plow which was pulled by a horse. Then men with large saws cut through the ice along the grid lines. After that the large cakes of ice were floated along a channel of open water into shore guided by men using long pike poles. On reaching shore the ice cakes were loaded onto a conveyor built powered by a steam engine and moved up into the ice house. In the ice house men with pike poles guided the ice cakes along into chutes to fill the ice houses rooms. In spring and summer the ice houses were gradually unloaded as the ice was shipped out.
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 onset of winter also offered recreational opportunities. Ice skating was a longtime popular pastime for young people, but ice yachting or boating was a Hudson River staple for decades. First popularized around the Civil War, ice boating fell out of favor until a revival around the turn of the last century. The sport was primarily practiced by wealthy sportsmen who loved the speed involved.
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.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
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