Harvesting Ice on Jamaica Pond

This article is based on a talk sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and presented by Charlie Rosenberg on November 27, 2007 at the First Church in Jamaica Plain. 

As early as 400 BC, Persian engineers had mastered the technique of storing ice throughout the summer months.  The ice was brought in from the mountains during the winter and stored in large, specially designed, naturally cooled underground “refrigerators” with six-foot thick walls of special insulating mortar.  This ancient practice of harvesting ice was the beginning of what was to become, during the 19th century, a major commercial enterprise here in New England.

Before the 19th century, ice was a commodity available only to the very rich and to those who could harvest it themselves.  All that changed as the ice harvesting industry became increasingly mechanized and new technologies were developed that allowed more people to enjoy the benefits of ice year round.

In North America, ice harvested from rivers and ponds was originally stored in underground vaults similar to root cellars.  Nathaniel Wyeth, who was the director of ice operations for ice magnate Frederic Tudor at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, is credited with inventing the ice plow, and in 1825 he conceived the idea of erecting insulated buildings above ground to store ice.  These wood buildings were double-walled and insulated with straw or sawdust.  A properly constructed and insulated icehouse was thus able to preserve ice throughout the summer and into the following ice harvesting season.

Before the appearance of the industrial engine, hauling ice into storage was a slow and laborious process that required the use of horses, heavy ropes and pulleys.  By the middle of the 19th century, stationary industrial steam engines were being used to drive ice conveyors at a rapid pace, greatly improving the efficiency of hauling the heavy cakes of ice up to the icehouses on the shore.

1855 map showing the E.M. Stoddard & Co. ice house.

1855 map showing the E.M. Stoddard & Co. ice house.

The first evidence of a commercial ice operation on Jamaica Pond is found on an inset of an 1855 map of Suffolk County showing the E.M. Stoddard and Company Ice Company owning a row of icehouses near the modern day rotary at Jamaicaway and Prince Street. 

By 1874, Stoddard’s business was operating as the Jamaica Pond Ice Company.  The Boston Globe reported in February of that year that the Jamaica Pond Ice Company was employing about 350 men harvesting ice on Jamaica Pond, packing the ice into the icehouses, and delivering ice to wholesale and retail customers.  The Globe reported that the men were being paid, on average, $1.75 per day.

Little is known about Mr. Stoddard, but we do know that Phineas B. Smith was active in the ice business as early as 1855 and was a partner with E.M. Stoddard.  Smith was later the president of the Jamaica Pond Ice Company.

By 1880, the Jamaica Pond Ice Company had 22 icehouses on Jamaica Pond with a storage capacity of 30,000 tons.  The company supplied ice to customers in Brookline, West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, South End, Roxbury and Dorchester.  At the peak of the harvesting season the company employed more than 600 men with 75 men being employed during the summer.  The company had a special brewery department with 100 teams of horses that were used to supply ice to 25 breweries in the area.

The Dean Dudley & Company Boston Directory, published in 1873-74, lists the Jamaica Pond Ice Company as having offices at 2389 Washington Street.  This building, no longer extant, was located one block from Dudley Square.  The same directory shows that Phineas B. Smith, who owned the Jamaica Plain Ice Company, lived at 30 Marcella Street, near the present Jackson Square.

By the 1850’s it was common for those with moderate incomes to store ice in the home.  In 1856, a system was patented based on ice being placed in the top of a wooden box with natural draft air circulating around it.  During the late 1800’s dozens of companies entered the market for these devices that came to be known as “iceboxes.”  Like any business, the ice industry responded to competition and consumer demands.  In 1880, the Boston Globe reported that the standards in the ice delivery business had changed significantly in the past few years; “Previously, one man was employed to drive the ice wagon and dump dirty blocks of ice on the customer’s doorstep or sidewalk.  Now it is the practice to have two men on each wagon.  One of those men will drive the wagon.  He will be experienced, trustworthy and well dressed.  The other man is known as the “striker.”  He will carry the ice from the wagon into the house and place it in the icebox.  Before doing so, he will insure that the block of ice is cleaned and dressed.”  

In February of 1874, the Boston Globe reported that the Jamaica Plain Ice Company was cutting about 5,000 tons of ice a day and, “will probably fill all of their ice houses by next week.  The ice is ten inches thick and crystal clear.  The pond will be cleared by the end of this season.” 

The Globe also reported on the wholesale price of ice in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston as ranging from $5 to $12 per ton, ” … reduced to round numbers, the cost of ice to consumers in these four cities is twenty millions of dollars.  Add to this amount all that is consumed in the other large cities of the Union, to say nothing of the lesser cities and towns, and one can realize the amount of the ice traffic of the country. .”

How Ice is Harvested

A section of a bird’s-eye view of Jamaica Plain showing ice houses on Jamaica Pond.

A section of a bird’s-eye view of Jamaica Plain showing ice houses on Jamaica Pond.

The first step in harvesting ice involved removing the accumulated snow on top of the ice.  In the early years of the ice industry, snow was considered a hindrance but over time it was learned that the snow acted as an insulator, and by blocking the sunlight, the blanket of snow promoted deeper freezing.  The preferred thickness of ice was 15 inches, although 12 inches was considered acceptable.  The thicker ice was selected for export because up to half the thickness could be lost during long shipboard voyages.  When ready for harvesting, the snow was removed using heavy scrapers pulled by teams of horses.  Another method was known as “sinking the pond.”  This latter method involved boring a series of large holes in the ice to allow water to flow up through the holes and melt the snow, thus bonding the freshly melted snow to the ice and increasing the yield of harvested ice.

After removing the snow, the next step was to survey a six hundred square foot area of the ice, marking out the boundary lines with a hand cutter.  After the survey, a cutter with two runners forty-four inches apart was used to score the surface of the ice.

One of the runners of the cutter was a guide, the other had a large-toothed cutting edge designed to make a preliminary groove two inches deep in the ice.  This implement traced a grid pattern on the surface.  Then, a twin-bladed cutter followed the pattern laid out by the initial single-blade cutter.  Next, an iron ice plow pulled by a team of horses cut down through the ice to within four inches of the bottom.

The final cutting of the ice was done with hand tools.  These included long-bladed saws with long-handled spades and fork bars.  Large sections of the six hundred foot square were cut away, and these floats were ridden like rafts.  The larger floats were divided into smaller pieces as it was floated toward the icehouse.  The small pieces were then pushed onto a conveyor for a trip to the icehouse 70 feet above the pond surface.

Exporting Ice

Prior to the introduction of home refrigerators in 1916, ice was commonly used to keep food fresh. The Jamaica Pond Ice Company delivered ice to residences for use in iceboxes that were wood chests lined with zinc. This photograph shows two delivery men using ice tongs to hold blocks of ice cut to the proper size to fit into iceboxes. Iceboxes didn't disappear from U.S. homes entirely until after World War II when mass production made refrigerators affordable for most families. Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Prior to the introduction of home refrigerators in 1916, ice was commonly used to keep food fresh. The Jamaica Pond Ice Company delivered ice to residences for use in iceboxes that were wood chests lined with zinc. This photograph shows two delivery men using ice tongs to hold blocks of ice cut to the proper size to fit into iceboxes. Iceboxes didn't disappear from U.S. homes entirely until after World War II when mass production made refrigerators affordable for most families. Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The first cargo of ice to be exported from America was a shipment of 130 tons shipped on the brig Favorite in August of 1805.  The Favorite sailed from Boston to the West Indies and her voyage was organized by 21-year-old Frederic Tudor, a Boston Latin High School dropout, in response to an outbreak of yellow fever in the West Indies.  Mr. Tudor, who went on to build an empire in ice, and who became known as the Ice King, harvested 200 tons of ice from a pond in Saugus and hauled it with teams to Charlestown, where it was loaded onto the Favorite and sailed to Martinique.  While Mr. Tudor’s ice exporting venture initially faced widespread ridicule, by 1812 he had developed a thriving export trade and had built a series of icehouses in Kingston, Jamaica.  Soon thereafter he established a monopoly on ice trade in Havana, Cuba.

In addition to finding and developing markets for the ice, Tudor had to build a far-flung business organization while inventing efficient shipping and storage techniques. He faced a number of other obstacles in his campaign to expand the ice export market including the Embargo Act, in effect from 1807 to 1809, which restricted foreign exports and, following the repeal of the Embargo Act, the War of 1812 which severely curtailed American shipping of all kinds.

F.H. Forbes wrote in Scribner’s Monthly Magazine in 1875 that, “The loading of ships at Charlestown is, perhaps, one of the most interesting features connected with the ice trade.  As the cars pass down the track from the main road to the wharf, where the ships are waiting, they are separately weighed; then the car is moved to a position opposite the gangway of the ship; a long platform, rigged with iron or steel rails, is placed between the car and the gangway of the ship. Over this platform the ice is slid from the car door to the ship’s rail … The average amount of ice loaded on board ship in one day is three hundred tons, but, upon an emergency, five hundred tons can easily be disposed of.”

After establishing a thriving export business, Tudor then turned his attention to domestic markets and, in 1817; he established an ice business in Charleston, South Carolina.  Mr. Tudor moved on to set up trade with New Orleans in 1820 and soon New Orleans became the largest consumer of ice south of Philadelphia.  

In 1833, Mr. Tudor began supplying ice to Calcutta, India, some 16,000 miles from Boston.  The voyage to Calcutta took nearly four months and served mostly ex-patriot British and other colonialists.  Modern day travelers to Madras, India, may still visit the very icehouses that were built by Mr. Tudor’s company.  The following year, Mr. Tudor sent the first shipment of ice to Rio de Janeiro as he aggressively expanded his growing ice empire.

Other entrepreneurs harvested ice in Wenham, Massachusetts, and attempted experimental shipments of ice to England (probably shipping it from Beverly) but ultimately they were not successful, as England had begun to import ice from Norway.  As late as 1880, signs offering “Boston Ice” still appeared in the ice markets even though the Boston ice trade to England had long since been abandoned.

The ice market in New York was so strong that is was supplied locally by harvesting operations on the Hudson River and Rockland Lake, as well as by ice sent from Boston and other cities.

Export of ice from Boston gradually declined as harvesting operations in Maine began to dominate the export market.  Large ice operations were established on the Kennebec River and at other locations in Maine.  Maine ice operators held several advantages over Boston.  Ice could be harvested from the Kennebec River and loaded directly onto ships so middleman transport costs were eliminated.  Additionally, Maine had a longer harvesting season due to its colder climate.  

The Decline of the Industry

The decline of the ice industry on Jamaica Pond was fueled by the conflict between commercial and recreational use of the pond.  Large numbers of horses were used to harvest the ice and their waste led to pollution of both the water and the shoreline.  A movement to incorporate the pond with the Emerald Necklace park system was also gaining currency.  Further, starting in the 1850’s, Jamaica Plain began to be heavily subdivided into housing lots when a number of large estates were broken up.  Jamaica Plain was losing its rural character and becoming a community of well-heeled homeowners who wielded considerable political and economic clout.  The noise, pollution and congestion associated with the ice industry became a thorn in the side of the newly arrived gentry.

There were other reasons for the decline that went beyond the local resistance of the newly settled residents of Jamaica Plain.  By 1868, the first ice manufacturing plant was opened by the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company.  And as time went on, the electric refrigerator made the ice company obsolete.  By 1913 electric refrigerators were being marketed for household use although both natural and artificial ice continued to be delivered to homes through the end of World War II.  After the war, home refrigerators quickly came to displace the icebox in most North American homes and the ice harvesting industry quietly came to an end.

Charlie Rosenberg
November 2007



City of Boston, Ward 23, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, O.H. Bailey & Co., 1891
West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain & Roslindale, Massachusetts, G.M. Hopkins & Co., 1874
Jamaica Plain/West Roxbury inset of an 1855 map of Suffolk County held by the Boston Public Library.

Boston Daily Globe, February 6, 1874, pg. 8
Boston Daily Globe, January 19, 1879, pg. 2
Boston Daily Globe, February 15, 1880, pg. 2
Boston Daily Globe, February 8, 1885, pg. 9
Boston Daily Globe, February 21, 1889, pg. 4

Books and Periodicals:
Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, Vol 10, No 4, Aug. 1875
Allston-Brighton in Transition:  From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb  by Dr. William P. Marchione, The History Press, 2007
The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, by Carl Seabury, Boston; Massachusetts Historical Society, and Mystic,   Connecticut; Mystic Seaport, 2003
Ancient Inventions, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ballantine Books, 1994, ISBN 0345401026
The Frozen Water Trade, by Gavin Weightman, Hyperion Books, 2003, ISBN 078686740X