Winter Tales: Esopus Ice Houses

There were four huge icehouses on the shore of the Hudson River in Port Ewen. The northern most, at the foot of Main Street, belonged to the Burns Brothers. It was built in 1870 on the dock of the Pennsylvania Coal Company. The Brothers were coal and ice dealers in NY City.

About a third of a mile south of Burns operation, the Cormack family built an icehouse in 1900, on land once the VanVliet farm. Their business consisted of two large buildings one behind the other. The rear building was on land about five feet above the other with a passageway between the two. It was painted red. The Cormacks were diamond (another ice?) dealers from NY City.

About a third of a mile below Cormacks’ was the American Ice Company icehouse built in 1863. Later, it was sold to John D Schoonmaker. who eventually sold it to Roger Mabie just after WWII. A third of a mile below the American icehouse was the Knickerbocker Ice Company icehouse. It was the last one standing in Port Ewen. After it was razed, the Shell Oil Company had a bulk plant there, now the location of the Roger Mabie Water Treatment Plant. Knickerbocker’s was also a NY City concern. One ice house was more than 800 feet long.

Smaller icehouses just south of the Burns Brothers were owned by two commercial fishermen in the late 1800s.Smaller icehouses catered to local needs.

Ice harvesting would begin toward the end of December, or early January, depending on the thickness of the ice. The men who worked on the boats in the summer would seek work on the ice in winter. The horses that pulled the ice wagons in New York City in the summer were herded aboard a steamer and brought up the Hudson to work on the ice during the harvest. One farmer from Hanley Corners near Margaretville used to load his team of horses on the Ulster & Delaware Railroad and bring them to Kingston to work the ice harvest.

Scrapers drawn by the horses removed the snow from the ice. Then, a rectangular steel frame with teeth on the under side was drawn across the snow-cleared ice by the horses to “mark out” the ice field.After marking out, they used a special saw designed just for cutting the ice into cakes. A channel was cut from the ice field into the shore and the cakes of ice where moved through this canal by men with pike poles. The ice was put aboard a cart on rails to take it up into the ice house. Sometimes the men who loaded the ice in the icehouse were hired year ’round to load the ice barges in the summertime.

The icehouses were double-wall structures with sawdust between. As the ice was stored it was covered with sawdust and the ice could be kept for many months without melting.

During the harvest a man or a horse could fall in the open water. The rescue of a horse was very difficult and sometimes the horse would drown. While fishing for shad, Frank Parslow netted in a horseshoe. It still had the nails in it and was probably from a horse that drowned. That horseshoe is at the Klyne Esopus Museum and was used in a display featuring ice harvesting tools. Caulks (like 1/2 inch spikes) on the iron shoe were arranged to prevent the horse’s foot from slipping in any direction while on the ice. Guess this one might have failed.

The four large ice houses shipped their ice to New York City on special barges. An ice barge was a huge structure with an enclosure built on top in which the ice was stored for shipment. There was a windmill atop this structure used to pump out water from the melted ice. Sometimes there would be a dozen or more of these ice barges making up a tow.

Mike Tucker bought out the Burns Brothers and had a summer bungalow colony on the property. The Tucker and Cormack docks were favorite swimming places for the boys and girls of Port Ewen.

After WWI manufactured ice came upon the scene and the ice houses were torn down, one by one, as business melted away. First to go was Burns Brothers. Next, the American icehouse. The Cormack icehouse was torn down in the mid-1920s. Michael Tucker made a deal with the Cormacks to tear it down for the wood. While cutting up the wood a piece flew up and put out one of Tucker’s eyes. He had a saloon in the old Pennsylvania Coal Company office building. If a customer wasn’t looking, Mike would drop his glass eye into the guy’s beer. Mike thought this was hilarious. Can’t see it, myself.

The men who worked on the ice were paid $1.00 a day, the men who stored the ice got $1.50 a day. They worked dawn until dusk, six days a week. The Knickerbocker and the American Ice Company received “grants for land under water” from the state. That enabled them to build their docks without further approval. These “grants” extended 1500 feet out from shore and extended the full length of the Town’s waterfront.

It was said that if you traveled the Hudson, you were never out of sight of an ice house once you got up to the “fresh water.”


Wilson TinneyWilson Tinney lived in Port Ewen for 90 years before moving to Watertown, NY, three years ago. Wilson turns 93 on December 25th. He still golfs. He drives down here to attend Klyne Esopus Museum and other area events. He is an avid golfer, and was the subject of an article, “Pulling Up Roots,” in About Town a few years ago.