Editor's Note: The following is a verbatim transcription of a chapter from Spalding's Winter Sports by James A. Cruikshank, published in 1917 and part of the Ray Ruge Collection at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Many thanks to volunteer Adam Kaplan for transcribing this booklet.
After a trial of all the sports of all the year, from running foamy rapids in your own canoe to sailing over the earth on the wings of an airplane, the honest critic will award the palm to Ice Boating for its unrivaled excitement, its unapproached speed and its glorious intoxication. No man ever believed that he had been nipped by the frost while he was making his first trip in an ice yacht; his fast beating heart was pumping too much red blood through his delighted body to permit any such thing!
Ninety miles an hour is credibly reported as the occasional speed of the ice yacht. The greatest authority on the subject is of the opinion that no real limit can be set for the speed of the craft, since ideal conditions of wind and weather and ice, and ideal construction of the craft for utilizing these conditions have never been combined and probably never will be. It is known beyond the shadow of a doubt, however, that the ice yacht can and does sail faster than the wind which is blowing at the time, strange as this statement may appear to the uninformed. For the absolute beauty of motion, with least sensation of striving after speed, with smallest appreciable evidence of friction, and almost utter absence of that noise which is the general accompaniment of all fast traveling, the ice yacht is absolutely unique and unsurpassed. An initiation trip of a few miles will furnish sensations so novel and so fascinating as to be incomparable with any other sport the winter lover has tested; he will be a hardened and blasé soul if then and there he does not vow further acquaintance with the thrilling pastime.
The ice yacht is a development of the ice boat, which was a square box set on steel runners and propelled by a sail. It may be said that for purposes of easy definition the only differences now existing between an ice boat and an ice yacht are differences of cost; like the “pole” of the country boy angler and the “rod” of the city angler, both the ice boat and the ice yacht have the same uses and furnish the same sport. If the craft is simple and perhaps home-made it will probably be an ice boat; if it is made by professionals, with due reference to the “center of effort” in the placing of sails, has red velvet cushions and that sort of thing, you are privileged to call it an ice yacht. Either one will give all the sport any reasonable man is entitled to in this wicked world.
Ice yachts cost between $500 and $5,000, although there is said to be at least one which cost over this latter figure. Ice boats cost from $5 up, depending largely upon who does the work of making them. Along the lower reaches of the Hudson River there are any number of successful ice boats which cost less than $25 apiece, and they furnish magnificent sport. Any small boy with a knack for mechanical work can make himself an ice boat that will serve every purpose and teach him the rudiments of steering and managing the craft; and he will find many surprises in learning the new sport, even though he may be a clever small boat sailor on water.
The handsomest and finest ice yachts in the world are found along the Hudson River in New York State, near the city of Poughkeepsie. There are also many fine ice yachts used on the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey, on Orange Lake, Newburgh, N.Y., on Lakes George and Champlain, and a very considerable interest in the sport among the winter-loving sportsmen of the northwestern United States, especially Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. With that daring characteristic of the western folks, the ice yachts of the Northwest seem to be planned more with reference to general use under all conditions of smooth, rough or snowy ice than some of the more highly perfected eastern craft which are seldom used unless conditions are perfect. Thus the westerner gets a much larger amount of sport out of the season than the easterner; fourteen days of good sport is all that some of the eastern yacht enthusiasts expect during a full season.
While there are several interesting designs of ice yachts in general use among the experts of the sport, and any number of “freak” designs, some of which have demonstrated their ability to walk away with handsome prizes, there has come to be comparative uniformity as to the general lines of construction. And from these lines it would be best for the ice yacht builder not to deviate too much, although minor constructive details still leave considerable room for experiment and originality.
The generally accepted design of the fastest and best ice yachts is that of a cross, in which the center timber, also sometimes called the backbone or the hull, running fore and aft, is crossed, just a little forward of half its length, by the runner plank. A successful western design consists of two center timbers spread apart several feet in the center of the craft and joined at the forward end, or bowsprit, and at the extreme stern, where the rudder is located, The best material for the backbone or center timber is either basswood or butternut. Oak is generally used for the runner plank; clear spruce for the mast and spars. The cockpit or seat is merely a place for the steersman and guests to half lie or half sit, and is generally provided with a combing and rails. Cushions of hair, cork, moss, or hay are provided. All running gear, except the main sheet rope, is of plow steel rope or flexible wire. Sails are of cross-cut pattern used in racing water yachts.
The most important items of the ice yacht, after the frame, are the runners and the rudder. Here great care should be exercised to get the right thing. Certain fixed standards of material, design and hang are almost universal. The runners and the rudder, which are almost identical in shape, are of V-shaped castings; the very best grade of cast iron seems to be the most preferred. The fact that, after a few weeks of sailing, these runners have to be sharpened, and that the friction and heat developed in their use gives them a dense hardening which it takes considerable filing to penetrate, warrants the use of runner material not too hard at the start. Tool steel, Norway iron, phosphor bronze and even brass have been used; the best results seem to come from good quality castings. There is difference of opinion whether there should be rock to the runner or considerable flat area, but the consensus of opinion favors a slight rock to the runners and less to the rudder. Between the rudder and the bottom of the cockpit a large rubber block is inserted to take some of the jar and vibration. The runners are permanently fastened to the runner plank, allowing play up and down, while the rudder is set in a rudder post which has a Y at the lower end, allowing the rudder vertical motion. The tiller should be a long iron bar wrapped with cord, lest some thoughtless guest, with perspired hand, comes to grief. Cockpit rails should be similarly wrapped.
The craft to which reference has so far been made is of the general Hudson River pattern. No dimensions have been given, but for the further information of the interested reader planning to enter the sport, the following dimensions of a successful ice yacht of this type are here appended. The figures will be useful to those planning smaller craft if the same proportions are observed, although the size, known as the Two Hundred and Fifty Square Foot Area Design, has proven itself especially useful as an all-around fast ice yacht for the largest number of days. Backbone, 30 feet over all, 4 1/2 inches thick, 11 inches wide at runner plank; nose, 3 1/2 inches; heel, 4 3/4 inches; runner plank over all, 16 feet 8 inches; cut of runners, 16 feet; length of cockpit, 7 feet 6 inches; width, 3 feet 7 inches. Mast stepped 9 feet 6 inches aft of backbone tip. The rig is jib and mainsail; dimensions of jib, on stay, 12 feet; leech, 9 feet 9 inches; foot, 7 feet 3 inches; mainsail, hoist, 12 feet; gaff, 10 feet 3 inches; leech, 24 feet; boom, 18 feet. Sail area, 248.60. Such a craft as this can be built for about $200.
The ice yacht sailor will learn many things about sailing which he never learned from handling water craft. The sails are trimmed flat all the time in ice yacht sailing. There is no such thing as “going before the wind” with free sheet, in the manner familiar to water yachtsmen, for the excellent reason that no ice yacht will hold its direction sailing in this fashion, in wind of any considerable speed. The marvelous ease with which the craft is steered will amaze every yachtsman, especially those familiar with the hard helm of the average catboat. Many a beginner at the Ice Yachting game turns his tiller too sharply and finds himself flung off and sailing away over the smooth ice while his craft spins on her center. The ordinary way to stop the craft is to run up into the wind; sometimes the rudder is turned square across the direction after this position is attained, and a quick stop can thus be made, but it is a severe strain on the craft. Ice yachts are “anchored” by heading them into the wind, loosening the jib sheets and turning the rudder crosswise. Frequently passengers or crew are carried on the extreme cuter edges of the runner plank, and the sensation when this runner gradually rises in the air is thrilling indeed. It is not generally regarded as good sailing, however, to have the runners leave the ice much. It is much better and much safer for the amateur at the sport to learn something of the handling of the craft from experienced friends before he ventures abroad alone; there are immense boulders away up on the dry land of the Hudson’s shores which have been the lodging places of some fine new ice yachts that the tyro sailors could not even steer, much less stop.
The most interesting novelty in ice-yachting seen in recent years is the invention of Mr. William H. Stanbrough of Newburgh, N.Y., and consists of a cockpit which can be made to swing from side to side of the yacht, according to the point of sailing, etc. The cockpit rests on the runner plank and on a track, and is provided with wheels which permit it to run easily back and forth. The center of the cockpit is well forward, providing better distribution of weight and, by means of drums and cables, the steering is managed from a tiller post, much as the steering of the sailing canoe is done. The shifting of weight makes it possible to either keep the craft on three runners or to lift the windward runner in the air at will. The device has been tested for several seasons and is enthusiastically praised by those who have adopted it.
The greatest authority on ice yachting in America is the noted sportsman, Mr. Archibald Rogers, of Hyde Park, N.Y., whose interest in the sport is not confined to the handling of his famous ice yachts, among which the “Jack Frost” ranks first, but includes as well scientific researches as to materials for construction of the ice yacht, and whose amateur workshop and ice yacht house is a storehouse of information on the sport. The most successful builder of ice yachts is George Buckhout, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., builder of the famous successes, “Jack Frost,” owned by Mr. Archibald Rogers, and “Icicle,” Mr. John Roosevelt, owner, and many Western ice yachts.
THE GREAT SOUTH BAY “SCOOTER”
Valuable as is the ice yacht as a gift of America to the sport of the world, it is probable that the craft known as the “Scooter,” which originated on the waters of the Great South Bay, Long Island, N.Y., excels it in value, for already this unique inventions been taken up not merely by the sportsmen of the world but by hundreds of others whose requirements for sport and work the odd craft seems exactly to fill. Many lives have already been saved by the “scooter,” and its growing popularity wherever open water, which wholly or partly freezes, is found, indicates that it has an important future. The “scooter” may be properly classed among ice yachts, since it truly sails successfully over ice. But it does much more than this, for it will also sail in water, safely go from ice to open water and back again from open water to ice. There is no craft or machine, so far devised by man, so nearly similar to the amphibious wild duck, and the simplicity of the construction of the craft, as well as its ease handling, renders it more than ordinarily interesting and valuable to seekers after novelties in sport that are worth while.
The “scooter” is an evolution. It is a cross between the round-nosed spoon bottomed ducking boat rigged with sails and the old pioneer ice boat which was nothing more than a square box on iron runners. Some of the best “scooters” now in use on the Great South Bay were built by men who never did a stroke of boat building before. Some were built by boys. Anybody can build one, and the completed craft, sails and all, ought not to cost over $100. They are the safest, the most compact, the easiest stowed, the most durable, and the greatest sports furnishing toys for their cost and size which the winter loving folks of the world have so far been introduced to. Let’s get acquainted with them.
Imagine the bowls of two wooden spoons 15 feet long, with a width, or beam, of 4 to 5 feet. The upper wooden shell, which is the deck of the craft, is curved over from bow to stern and from one side to the other like the back of a turtle. The lower wooden shell is almost a duplicate of the upper one, which makes the craft almost flat bottomed. There is no keel or centerboard or opening of any kind on the bottom. There is a cockpit about 5 feet long and about 2 feet wide, around which runs a heavy combing 3 inches high and very solidly built. The runners of the craft are 20 inches apart, along 10 feet of the bottom, are slightly rocked, 1 inch wide and 1 1/2 inch high. They are of steel or brass, the latter allowing of quick sharpening for races or hard ice.
The mast, set well aft, is about 10 feet in height, and the handiest rig is jib and mainsail, the latter either with boom and gaff or sprit. A small boom for the foot of the jib is customary, and in the handling of this jib is the whole secret of steering and managing the craft. The bowsprit should be large and project about 3 feet beyond the hull. In many “scooters” the bowsprit is made removable so that larger ones may be substituted for changes in weather. The spread of sail in a “scooter” is lateral rather than high, and must be well astern since the canvas of the craft is all that is used to steer her, no rudder of any kind being used. A “scooter” of 10 foot mast will carry a mainsail having an 8 foot gaff and a 15 foot boom, with a leech of about 15 feet. The foot of the jib will be 7 feet and the leech the same, or slightly more.
The material used for the making of the “scooter” is generally pine and oak. Additional items of the equipment consist of a pike pole having sharpened ends and a pair of oars. Steering is done by a combination use of the jib, change in the location of the skipper or crew, and occasionally by the manipulation of the mainsail. By paying out the jib sheet and hauling in on the mainsheet, the “scooter” will come up into the wind like a fin keel water yacht; she will do this even more prettily if the weight of the skipper or crew is moved slightly forward, throwing weight on the forward part of the runners. Like an ice yacht, the “scooter” does not sail well before the wind; one must tack before the wind as well as into it. Two is the customary crew, although three are sometimes carried.
Open water must be dived into exactly straight or an upset will occur. Manipulation of the mainsail and jib is most important at this critical point of sailing. To climb up from the open water onto ice again is easier for the “scooter” than one would believe who has not seen it. The weight of the crew is shifted aft, there is a bit of helping with the sharp crook of the pike pole and off she goes over the smooth ice again.
The headquarters of the “scooter” interest is found in the vicinity of Patchogue, Long Island, N.Y., and the picturesque events run off there every winter draw thousands of New Yorkers. The most noted designer and builder of “scooters” is Henry V. Watkins of Bellport, N.Y., on the Great South Bay, and the patron saint of the quaint new sport is the noted sportsman, raconteur and host, Captain Bill Graham, of The Anchorage, Blue Point, Long Island. The seeker after something novel in winter entertainment is strongly urged to make the acquaintance of the new sport of “Scootering” as practiced here in Great South Bay, where the sport was born.
Today's Media Monday treat is all about ice boating! This short film, produced for British Pathe, shows ice boats speeding around Greenwood Lake, which is on the border between New York and New Jersey. Great footage of how the ice boats operated.
The film was produced by British Pathe for the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) line in Britain, which had a cinema car on its trains designed to show short newsreels like this one for the entertainment of passengers. Yes, Greenwood Lake iceboats were being viewed in London!
If you'd like to learn more about ice boats, be sure to visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum, which has two ice boats on display. You can also read and watch more by exploring the Ice Boats category on the history blog.
To learn more about railroad cinema cars, check out "Inside the Cinema Train: Britain, Empire, and Modernity in the Twentieth Century" by Rebecca Harrison for Film History (2014), available on JSTOR.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
Last week we saw footage of the beautiful stern-steerer Vixen. This week we travel not to the Hudson River, but to Michigan for this fascinating footage of a 1930s Chevrolet racing one of those rocket-style iceboats than began replacing the wooden old stern-steerers.
Ice boats were at one time the fastest vehicles on earth - able to race trains and win. Automobiles were just starting to push the limits of speed, and this film was part of an advertising campaign by Chevrolet to illustrate just how fast their new vehicles were.
Front-steering iceboats like this one were popular in the Hudson Valley in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s as well. Streamlined and looking more like rocketships than boats, they pushed the limits of speed on ice.
Ray Ruge, who in 1964 helped revive the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club to save the old-style wooden stern-steerers, was in the 1940s and '50s racing more modern ice boats. In 1940 he won the Championship Race of the Eastern Ice Boat Pennant of America, held at Orange Lake, NY.
Although not as popular as the old wooden stern-steerers, you still see wooden or, more commonly, fiberglass "rocket" iceboats on the Hudson River.
Originally named, "Eugene," the ice yacht Vixen was built in 1886 in what is now Chelsea and was the first successful lateen-rigged ice boat. The new rigging style allowed for even greater speed. Purchased by John A. Roosevelt (FDR's uncle) and renamed Vixen, she can still be seen plying the Hudson whenever it gets cold enough to freeze.
John A. Roosevelt, who lived at Springwood, just down the river from his sister Sarah Roosevelt's home (now the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site), owned a number of ice boats, including the Icicle, on display at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. John A. Roosevelt founded the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club in 1885, breaking away from the older Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club (founded in 1861) over a dispute about race results. John A. Roosevelt served as the club's first Commodore and his nephew Franklin served as Vice-Commodore for a time.
This brief video of Vixen sailing c. 2010 gives a first-hand look at what sailing the old stern-steerers is like.
By the 1920s, the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club had fallen into disuse. The old wooden stern-steerers like the Vixen began to be overshadowed in popularity by more modern, streamlined ice boats that looked more like rockets with sails than the old-fashioned kind. Innovations in speed and technology, centered around the Great Lakes in the Midwest, made the old wooden boats obsolete. The knowledge that many of the old stern-steerers, tucked away in garages and barns, were in danger of disappearing. But in 1964, a group led by Cornwall resident and ice boating enthusiast Ray Ruge revived the HRIYC and began rescuing and restoring these old boats.
The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club is still around today, although they get to sail a lot less frequently than they used to, thanks to climate change. You can read more about the formation of the club, and ice yachting on the Hudson River in general, in this article, "Two Centuries of Ice Yachting on the Hudson" by Brian Reid, published in the 2007 issue of the Pilot Log.
You can learn more about ice boating and see John A. Roosevelt's Icicle as well as the smaller ice boat Knickerbocker on display at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The museum also holds the Ray Ruge Collection, including many photographs, articles, and correspondence related to the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, its stern-steerers, and its members.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum has thousands of artifacts and ephemera in its collections. On a regular basis, we will be sharing our favorites as part of our new "Featured Artifact" category of the blog.
We have been posting a lot about ice and winter sports here on the History Blog, so it's only apt that our first Featured Artifact is this beautiful piece of ephemera [paper items meant to be thrown away] from the Ray Ruge Collection. Ray was instrumental in reviving the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club in the 1960s and was an avid ice boater. His widow donated his large collection of ice boating history, photographs, ephemera, correspondence, and more to the museum. You'll be seeing more of Ray and his collection in the coming weeks.
This issue of Harper's Weekly (coincidentally ALSO from January 16, although in 1869, rather than 2021) featured "Ice-Boats on the Hudson" on the cover. Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization was a national weekly political magazine published out of New York City between 1857 and 1916. Often beautifully illustrated with lithographs based on photographs, Harper's Weekly chronicled daily life, and many of its illustrations grace the museum's walls.
"Ice-Boats on the Hudson"
The original article, transcribed:
"The ice-yacht is a boat on skates, and is impelled by the wind in the same manner as an ordinary yacht. There has been for some time at Poughkeepsie, in this State, and Ice Yacht Club, modeled after the New York Yacht Club. Thus the frozen waters of the Hudson do not by any means impede the winter navigation of the river; indeed, with a strong wind and upon a smooth surface of ice, one of these ice-boats will attain a speed of one mile per minute, thus outrunning the locomotive, and literally flying with the speed of the wind.
"For several winters a race has been contemplated between these singular yachts; but the condition of the ice has never been favorable at the time agreed upon. Our illustration on this page shows the fleet at Poughkeepsie. This fleet consists of eight boats: the Flying Cloud, owned by IRVING GRINNELL; the Icicle, by JOHN ROOSVELT; the Snow Squall, by THEODORE V. JOHNSTON; the Una, by AARON INNIS; the Flying Dutchman, by THEODORE VAN KLEEK; the Haze, by JOHN JAY INNIS; the Restless, by Commodore O. H. BOOTH; and the Snow Flake, by THOMAS PARISH."
Editor's note - the Icicle is on display at the Hudson River Maritime Museum.
Editor's Note: This account is from the February 23, 1879 New York Times. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
"A Winter Ramble Over The Surface of the Hudson – Fishing Through The Ice – A Trap for Ice-Yachts – Trying Speed With Thought – Looking Down Upon A Winter Scene
Walking on the surface of the deep is no miracle in our climate. But the experience is quite rare enough to make a vivid impression, especially on those who tread habitually the dull sidewalks of a city. For the mind is haunted by at least a feeling of the miraculous as you walk over a great lake or river. The elements seem to have forgotten their laws, and the whole face of nature is weird when her gleaming eyes turn glassy. This unusual view of nature drew me to visit the Winter scenes on the Hudson. I purposed on this Winter walk to go from Poughkeepsie to Newburg on the ice, through the region renowned for ice-boating; where they hold tournaments for lady skaters; where they trot horses when they cannot row regattas; and where Winter life on the ice may seen in its perfection. I started by skating, and I rested from this by sailing, and walking part of the time, for I have a friend on the way who is a famous iceboat skipper; and we skipped about the river with the speed of the wind. I can scarcely call the trip a walk; for I traveled neither all by water nor by land, nor yet as the fowls of the air. But, however I went, the excursion was delightful with scenes and experiences characteristic of the Winter life of the Hudson.
As I left the dock at Poughkeepsie and skated out over the river, a thrill – almost a shiver – ran through me as I thought of the depths. But a few inches below my feet. Of course, one is not afraid on ice nearly a foot thick, but this unusual relation to deep wide water is unavoidably startling. You say to yourself there is no danger, but you feel to yourself, this is all very queer. The first minutes of my trip were therefore a little chaotic, with the confidence born of other people’s opinions, yet, with my own secret questioning about the ice all the way down my long route. But the exhilaration of the keen Winter morning soon bore away every other feeling. The thermometer marked only 15 degrees; a light west wind blew down over the hills of Ulster County, and the clear air and sunlight made the most distant scenes appear like faultless miniatures. I looked down the river 20 miles, over my whole route. The river near by was a narrow level valley between high banks of bare trees. The hills over-topping the banks were also brown and bare, excepting here and there a patch of snow or a knoll crowned with cedars that added deep shadows to the sober face of nature. The level valley of ice ran straight away to the distance between dark wooded headlands projecting one behind another, and marking in clear perspective the long vista of the river. The valley seemed to end at the foot of the Highlands, which over-topped the whole scene with their majestic heads, now gray with snow under a bare forest. This long level of ice was generally smooth, excepting here and there, a low wandering ridge of projecting edges and cakes at cracks; and the shores were marked by a tide.
Groups of men and boys were seen down the valley, even far off, and a few ice-boats were moving about at Milton, four miles below, and at New-Hamburg, 10 miles off. The mirage was very strong this clear morning, so the boats appeared double, as if one ran on the ice and other under it. The new ice was a curious record of nature in a warm and lenient hour. Jack Frost seemed a tell-tale of his freaks. He had pressed her white flowers; he had preserved her little landscapes modeled in the ice of rivulet, gorge, and bluff; he had caught the wind playing with the ripples and locked them fast, and he had painted the clouds and scattered crystals for the stars.
I soon reached Blue Point, where some fishermen were taking up their nets, and a few boys were grouped about them. Two men at each end of a narrow trench cut through the ice, and hauled up a line. These lines at last brought up a net 12 feet square, with a pole across the bottom, weighted with a stone at each end. The nets are lowered her about 50 feet, or half way to the bottom, and 10 to 20 of them are put down in a row across the current, over a reef or rocky point. The upper ends of the lines are tied to sticks that lie across the open trench, or stand up in the ice. The nets swing off under the ice, by the pressure of the current, and fill out like open bags. Catfish run into them, and are kept there by the current until slack water enables them to leave; but perch and bass are caught by the gills in the two-and-a-quarter-inch meshes. When the nets had all been lifted and put down again, the men picked up the few perch and young sturgeons, frozen as stiff as sticks, and walked to the shore. There they had a flat-boat decked over for a house. Bunks, stove, and various fishing-tackle filled the little cabin with a chaotic mass. They will launch their boat when the ice leaves, and float up or down then river as inclination may direct. In good seasons this ice-fishing yields often 50 pounds of fish at a lift, the men make about $10 per day with 20 nets. This year the fishing here is very poor, for the great freshet of the Fall carried the bass down to Haverstraw Bay.
I left the fishermen of Blue Point, and skated down the opposite shore. The bluffs along the railroad cuts were hung with great icicles, some of them 8 or 10 feet long. Every projecting ledge of some cliffs, from top to bottom, was decked with these splendid crystals, flashing in the sunlight. And at their feet, the twigs and rocks were covered with round forms of quaint shapes. While I stood there the rails began to ring faintly, but clearly as a bell, in the frosty air. The sounds beat in quick pulsations, grew to a rumbling, then to an increasing roar, and in a moment an express train came around the point at a thundering pace. All the stillness and peace of the morning vanished as before the blast of war. It passed in an instant; the roaring fled; the rails rang again with a clear, pure music, softer, and fainter still, and then the Winter silence came once more over the valley of ice. The solemn repose of the great river was then unbroken. For even its mutterings were solemn, when the ice cracked under my feet with a loud report, and the sound darted away in quick, erratic angles to the bluff, and still rumbled on in persistent gloom. The falls at the Pin Factor were a scene of prettier details. The rocks were covered with pillowy masses of whitish ice, and the clear water came down in zig-zag courses, now over these pillows, now under ice caverns built over rocks. The steep descent of the stream was guarded by rustic balustrades of roots and branches, all covered with ice, and the whole was partly veiled by some bare elms, bushes, and dark cedars. A nearer view of the ice showed it to be a bank of crystal flowers, gleaming faintly with prismatic hues in the sunshine. The water ran all over it in little rivulets perfectly free from earthly stain. The dim caves were the most poetic objects; they had neither a ray of sunshine nor a line of shadow within them; yet their sculptured walls were exquisitely shaded with the softest, clearest lights, and the arch in front was hung with crystals of brilliant colors. The whole fall was full of magic, the faint Winter music of the stream, the exquisite delicacy of forms petrified as in death, and the strangeness of objects that transmit light instead of casting shadows. The only witness of the scene is an old mill with a crumbling wheel that once turned round to the music of the brook. Now when the moonlight shines on his tottering form on the falls in the magic of Winter, and on the wide river groaning in his bed, the scene must be still more weird, if not more beautiful.
I went on to Milton, and there found my friend and his ice-boat ready for a cruise further down the river. I put on a few suits of clothes, woolen socks, arctics and mittens; then we embarked, and glided away toward New Hamburg. Other boats were skimming over the ice, and we exchanged many social greetings, if that term can be applied to salutations that begin and end at opposite points of the horizon. I dream of flying when I hold the tiller of an ice-boat, and find myself flitting about the earth, and reaching a place almost as soon as my thought of it. We flew about the Hudson for an hour or more, here turning to visit this point or that, there pausing in our flight to enjoy the excitement of another start, or to touch the social scenes and incidents of this Winter life. At a place near Milton we were admiring a large boat coming from the distance at great speed. Suddenly she stopped. As something was evidently the matter, we ran down there, and found her fast in a hollow that had been filled with water and then skimmed with thin ice. These hollows form by the expansion of the ice. The expansion across the river drives the ice up the shore, so that no cracks form up and down the stream. But the still greater expansion of the long stretches of ice up and down the river find no such room as the shores. The ice, therefore, doubles up, or buckles. It thus either throws up a low ridge, or else forms a hollow, on each side of the cracks running across the stream. The ridge does not interfere much with travel until one side of it drops down and makes a step or fault. But the hollow fills with water, sometimes several feet deep; and at last the tide catches one side of the inclined cakes or sides of the hollow, doubles it under, and carries it away. These clear, open cracks, from 10 to 20 feet wide, are slow to freeze, and generally offer the most dangerous places on the ice. They may form at any time, even in cold weather; so that constant attention and good light are required in raveling up or down the river. But, to return to the stranded ice-boat. She had a good breeze, and had come to this hollow too suddenly to avoid it. If the new ice had been a little stronger, or else narrower, it might have held her up till her forward runners had reached the old ice on the further side of the hollow, and the high wind, with her momentum, would have drive her through. This she would have “jumped a crack,” as the phrase goes; instead of this she “broke through,” as another phrase goes, and her passengers and crew were there surrounded by broken thin ice over a hollow of water in a depression of old ice. Now, we were interested chiefly in the passengers, for they were two very pretty girls, who explained with much animation and distinctness that they would like to get out of that situation. They appeared very well in the midst of rich furs and robes, but for once this advantage was ignored. So we had all the pleasure of their unnecessary distress, and finally landed them, still warm and dry, on the old ice. Then the boat was rescued, and amid many thanks on one side and some merry advice on the other, both parties darted away on the wind. We were afterward favored with pretty salutations from them, too literally en passant, yet too long drawn out for any comfort. Afterward, the same hollow entrapped a second boat; but this had only men aboard and we let them scramble out by themselves. A third boat came up to see what was the matter, and also ran into the trap. Then a fourth came up with a gust of wind, and ran her port runner and the rudder in before she could be rounded to. The water flew, the ice rattled; and it came so suddenly that the whole crew jumped off in a fright. But the whole crew was only one man, and the helmsman stuck to his tiller and brought her out to clear sailing again.
At Marlboro we found a crowd of skaters and sliders, collected to witness a horse-race on the ice. They all seemed to be animated with red, red noses. For the wind was keen, and they had to keep in constant motion. Some rosy girls and boys, with scarlet mittens and comforters, were skating hand in hand along the retired nooks of the shores. And some of the farmers from the hills were speeding their horses up and down the straight track on the ice. The village looked down on the scene from the head of its picturesque ravine. Northward, the river stretched away between its bold banks to Poughkeepsie, throwing up a cloud of thin smoke on the Western wind. Southward, the valley of ice ran between still bolder heads of dark cedars, along the sweeps of Low Point, past Newburg, and down to the foot of the Highlands. The gray heads of the mountains were nearer and grander now than when I first saw them from up the river. As the afternoon was passing away, we had to turn our backs on the swarms of boys and men at the horse-race, wave a last farewell to our pretty acquaintances on the ice-boat, and stand away southward. We flew along with a stiff breeze past New-Hamburg, the bold hills at Hampton, and on to other picturesque points. Cracks in the ice here and there made us turn in and out, and flit about with the quick motions of a bird. At last I had to give up the tiller, at the Dantz Kammer Point, shed my various suits down to a walking load, and bid the skipper good by as he flew away up the river.
But, after all, give me the sober earth for better or for worse. I enjoyed again the firmness of a good hard road, and the steadfast reality of a good walk down to Newburg. The road gradually mounts the high bank of the river among an army of cedars storming the height, and some farm-houses and orchards in their Winter reserve. At the top of the hill, near Balmville, you look back up the river and over the plains of Dutchess County. Southward the view includes the rolling hills about Newburg and Fishkill, the spires of these pretty towns, and the broad bay between them. The valley of ice contracts there to enter the magnificent gorge of the Highlands, and then disappears behind the shoulders of the mountains. These majestic spirits of the Winter scene are now still grander as you near their feet and gaze at their hoary, silent crowns. The suburbs of Newburg were quite cheerful. Carriages, with spirited horses, and with rosy faces above rich robes, dashed along the roads, and here and there a cozy home-scene shone out of window among evergreens. The town, too, was alive with teams and people from the surrounding country. Winter vigor and high spirits pervaded both man and beast. And I was kin enough to each to share in their joy for the keen Winter day. C.H. F."
Thank you to Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer George Thompson, retired New York University reference librarian, for sharing these glimpses into early life in the Hudson Valley. And to the dedicated museum volunteers who transcribe these articles.
Ice boating has a long history on the Hudson River, and the Hudson was where ice boating may have started in the United States. Although ice sailing on frozen rivers and canals in Europe dates back to the 17th century, it wasn't until the 1790s that we get our first recorded instance of ice boating on the Hudson River, in Poughkeepsie. A simple wooden box on two runners with a third runner at the back for steering, these sail-rigged boxes with skates were a way for ordinary people to have some wintertime fun, and even occasionally acted as transport vessels for people and small goods.
By the mid-19th century, the Hudson River was the center of a huge ice boating (or ice yachting) trend, one that experienced another surge of popularity at the turn of the 20th century.
Unlike the early boxes on runners, these new wooden "boats" were simple and elegant - an enormous wooden keel with a wooden cross piece and runners all around. A small platform at the back was for the skipper and any passengers. During races, sometimes the jib man would stand on the cross pieces.
This video, filmed in 2014, shows a number of historic "stern steerers" as they are called - because you steer the boat at the stern, or back, with the back ice runner serving as a rudder.
Thanks to climate change, the Hudson River doesn't freeze much these days, and when it does it rarely gets thick enough for long enough for ice boating. But that doesn't stop the folks who are keeping the sport alive from trying. You can learn more about the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club by visiting their website.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum has a large collection of ice boating materials, including the stern steerers Icicle and Knickerbocker (Jack Frost shown in the video is the sister boat to the Icicle). Icicle was owned by John E. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's cousin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's uncle, and the one who got FDR into ice boating. Both ice boats are on display in the museum's East Gallery.
If you'd like to learn more about the history of ice boating on the Hudson and about the formation of some of its groups, check out this great article from Hudson Valley Magazine: Explore the History of Ice Yachting in the Hudson Valley.
And this winter, if the weather gets cold enough for long enough, take a trip up to Kingston/Rhinecliff or Hudson, NY and see if you can't see folks ice boating off of Astor Point or Tivoli Bay.
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
Kingston, NY 12401
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