by George McNeely
As we enjoy cooling summer drinks, it is hard to imagine a time before there was an ice maker in every refrigerator. A century ago, those precious ice cubes only appeared in our iced tea after a long and arduous process.
Some ice cubes were made right here in Chestnut Hill. But where?
Many Pennsylvania farms still have ice houses, small stone structures that are usually half buried near water sources. Those modest structures were almost the last step in a complicated process.
Historically, entrepreneurs have long responded to the demand by harvesting ice in the winter and selling it in warmer times or climes. Such early ice traders have been documented as sourcing ice from the mountains in India, the Mediterranean, and South America to sell in each local market.
Ice became a major industry in the U.S. in the 19th century. A legendary figure in the early ice business was William Tudor (1779-1830), the “Ice King of Boston.” Starting in 1806 he initiated regular shipping of ice from his family’s ponds in Massachusetts to ports in the Caribbean and later to Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. In the 1830’s he expanded even further to ports in India. In a classic story of American innovation, Tudor experimented with alternative methods for insulating ice during the long voyages (straw, saw dust, rice husks, etc.) and explored potentially lucrative alternative markets ever farther afield.
Freshwater ponds or quieter sections of streams or rivers were the primary source of ice at that time. Large blocks of ice were cut with special tools in Maine, Massachusetts, the upper Hudson River, and other northern regions, stored in industrial-scaled ice houses, and then shipped out to hot, thirsty consumers in the growing cities of Philadelphia, New York and the near Midwest.
In the 1840s, the emerging interstate railroad system gradually muscled out shipping as the preferred distribution system. As the business expanded, it moved from supplying just ice itself to shipping meat, vegetables, beer, milk products and fruit in ice-cooled railroad cars. Even far off Norway got involved.
Ice also played its role in the complicated regional shipping and trading patterns. For example, ice sent in ships to the Southern U.S. ports was typically replaced with other products of interest to the north.
Local entrepreneurs also harvested ice from nearby ponds to supply their local market, thus avoiding the complexities and cost of longer distance shipping.
The best-known of our local ponds were located in the shallow valley through which the upper section of Lincoln Drive now runs, near its intersection with West Springfield Avenue. They resulted from damming part of the creek that today feeds the pond in Pastorius Park. The large associated ice house, built in 1843, still stands at 7902-06 Lincoln Dr. James Casey owned the Chestnut Hill Ice Company in the early 20th century and harvested ice for both the local and national markets, the latter accessed via the nearby railroad tracks.
In 1913, George Woodward had architects Duhring, Okie & Ziegler convert that ice house into the Willet stained-glass studio. The building remains today as apartments.
The nearby house at 7801 Lincoln Dr. (at the corner of Cross Lane), believed to have been built originally as a barn in the 18th century, was used in the 19th century as another ice house for those ponds. George Woodward had architect H. Louis Duhring convert it into a particularly handsome house in 1908.
Around 1884, Henry Houston had the Cresheim Creek damned to create Lake Surprise (above the existing McCallum Street bridge) as an attraction for guests at his newly opened Wissahickon Inn. But that lake was short lived and little indicates that it contributed to the local commercial ice business.
Another earlier man-made pond was located in Germantown in the valley now called Clifford Park, where Walnut Lane crosses over the lower section of Lincoln Drive. Earlier known as Lincoln Lake, that pond was controlled by the Germantown Water Company, which pumped water from 1851 to 1872. During those years and later the pond was used for ice production.
Chestnut Hill also had a large pond on the east side, near what is now the Water Tower Recreation Center. The Chestnut Hill Waterworks once controlled a large spring-filled pond on the west side of the Chestnut Hill East rail line. Surrounding buildings included a pumping station and various maintenance yards. It is assumed that this pond was also used for harvesting ice.
But gradually such pond-harvested ice met competition from manufactured ice, also known as “plant ice.” Various manufacturing processes were explored in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the mid-19th century, the systems had matured sufficiently to safely produce significant quantities at reasonable prices. Through the rest of the century, plant ice and pond ice competed.
The various systems for providing ice didn’t always work. Manufacturing and transportation disruptions during the Civil War and the inevitable periodic heat waves resulted in what were known as “ice famines” when neither type of ice was available in particular locations. Entrepreneurs responded by establishing production facilities ever farther north and Maine became more important in the trade.
Plant ice was initially believed to be of inferior quality as it was less clear and sometimes left chemical residue when melted. But then as industrialization and urbanization caused more polluted ground water (and ponds), plant ice made from cleaner water gradually became more reliable and thus preferred. Cities started restricting or banning the production of pond ice.
But simultaneously entrepreneurs were also working on mechanical refrigeration systems. A number of alternative methods were explored and by the early 20th-century commercial refrigeration had become common. Manufacturers started producing refrigerators for the domestic market and thus every house could produce its own ice.
With that technology the demand for either pond or plant ice declined. Our various local ice ponds gradually stopped being used for commercial ice production and reverted to skating and other recreational uses.
So when you next raise a chilled glass, please remember the complexities that were once involved in that pleasure and the local ponds and workers who used to make that possible. So many aspects of Chestnut Hill were – and are – built on the efforts of hard workers and innovative entrepreneurs. Raise a cool glass to their contributions!
Chestnut Hill resident George McNeely is an architectural historian, lecturer, editor, writer and charity auctioneer.