Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The R.&W. Scott Icehouse at Newton Hook

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, households and vendors depended on naturally formed ice as the only means to keep meat, fish and milk cold and unspoiled. This made ice a valuable commodity that could be harvested in winter and sold year round. To meet growing demand, an ice industry grew up on the Hudson River in the 19th century, concentrated in a fairly narrow section of the river above the tidal salt line and below the shallows that cut off navigation for larger ships and barges.

For the millions of people in the crowded cities, an “ice box,” which was essentially the same as a modern picnic cooler, served the same purpose as refrigerators. From our perspective there is a charming quaintness about such bygone technologies and Thom and Gail Hogan Lucia have done a nice job presenting the history and lore associated with the ice man and his horse-drawn wagon.

Of course, there is also a terrible irony in the fact that our refrigerators, freezers and air conditioning depend on electricity generated largely by the fossil fuels that are warming the climate toward a point that may be irreversible. Even in the coldest winter months the Hudson no longer produces the eight to ten inch thick ice that was so valuable a century ago.

Inspired by this irony, we visited the ruins of one of the great icehouses, built by the brothers R. & W Scott, at Newton Hook in 1885. Located about 120 miles above New York and 30 miles south of Albany, this promontory was called Nutten Hoek by the 17th century Dutch and is now a New York State Unique Area. Access is from state route 9-J a couple miles south of the hamlet of Stuyvesant. A dirt road leads across the Amtrak tracks and a home into a wooded area where the smoke stack of the ice house is soon visible through the trees.

The Scott brothers built a six story 300' by 400' windowless ice house here in 1885 and installed a coal-driven steam engine to power conveyor belts and an elevator. A large gang of men, who worked in farms, brickyards and other warm-weather businesses, was employed here in the winter months.

Using horse-drawn plows, the men cut blocks of ice from the river and hauled them to the conveyor belt which carried the ice to an elevator located in the center of the north end of the building. The concrete supports for the conveyor belt are visible amid the trees that have grown up within the space once occupied by the huge wooden ice house. In Spring and Summer the ice was loaded onto barges for transport south. There must have been a sizable dock here back then but we could no signs of the piling along the river.

The powerhouse was built of brick and its walls still stand, although the roof is gone and the interior is empty. The stack and the walls appear quite sturdy.

Two Department of Environmental Conservation signs offer a brief history of the site. Ice harvesting took place here for about forty years although by the early 1900s grave questions were being raised about the quality of the ice. In those years cities and towns along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers emptied their sewers directly into the river. In 1907 the New York Times published a report from Dr. Daniel Jackson, a chemist for the NYC Department of Water Supply, blaming river ice for outbreaks of typhoid fever. Using samples from various points in the river, he found the presence of typhoid bacteria particularly strong in the region around Albany, just to the north of Scott's icehouse. The science of the time was clear: typhoid bacteria were present in the river and freezing did not kill the bacteria.

Spokesmen for the ice industry challenged Jackson's report and cited their own experts who claimed that long-term storage of ice killed the bacteria. Dr. Prudden of Columbia University claimed that"the danger of the use of impure ice, although widespread, is not very alarming so far as the liability of extensive outbreaks of typhoid fever are concerned because most of the ice which is furnished appears to be of fair quality."

Despite its proven dangers, the sale of ice continued, for there appeared to be no alternative. In this the controversies of 1907 closely resemble those of our own age in which spokesmen for the fossil fuel industry have fought for decades to disprove mounting evidence for climate change.

The technology, in fact, that would eventually doom the river ice industry had already been invented even before the Scotts launched their business. In 1876 the German scientist Carl von Linde developed a process for continuously liquefying gases which became the basis for all subsequent refrigeration, although he did not obtain a U.S. patent until 1903. As the process was refined in subsequent years, its commercial value became clear to major American corporations. In 1911 GE introduced a refrigerator developed by a French inventor and in 1918 GM bought out a small firm and renamed it Frigidaire. By the 1920s, GM and GE were competing with Kelvinator and Electrolux for the electric refrigerator market and the ice industry was obsolete.

Scott's icehouse closed in the 1920s. In 1934 the huge building was sold to Kraus Brothers for use as a mushroom farm, a business which evidently did not long survive. At some point after that the building burned down and the site was abandoned to the forest.

In many ways the Scotts used forms of technology that we would call renewable. Horse and human musclepower harvested the ice, and it was transported by water to the cities, a far more energy-efficient means for moving heavy cargo than the diesel-powered trucks of our era. No electricity was required to store large quantities of ice for a year or two since the quantity alone kept the temperature low enough to minimize melting. Power for transporting the ice to the building, however, was provided by coal, then and now a major source for the greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for centuries. In that way the Scott brothers contributed to the warming climate that now keeps the river open even in the coldest months.

Looking for Work; Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York
by Peter H. Stott is an invaluable guide to this and other sites of bygone industry, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough. It is published by Syracuse University Press and available at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook.


  1. Hi Mike-
    Great blog!
    So I was up there the other day, driving through-- looking for the access road to this place. Is it the road that has a nature preserve sign and "No motor vehicles" posted? I didn't have time to venture further (and didn't know where to park) but I am wondering if you can offer some more precise directions --assuming it's legal to poke around there... ~Lisa
    Hi Mike-
    Great blog!
    So I was up there the other day, driving through-- looking for the access road to this place. Is it the road that has a nature preserve sign and "No motor vehicles" posted? I didn't really have time to venture further (and didn't know where to park) but I am wondering if you can offer some more precise directions --assuming it's legal to poke around there... ~Lisa

  2. Lisa,

    Yes, the dirt road leading tot he Ice House is the one with a nature preserve sign. It's on the left about a thousand feet past county road 46. Parking is not very good but you can get off the road at that point. The whole Newton Hook site is state land, and the ice house is easy to reach at the end of the dirt road.

    I've been out of town for a couple weeks, but now I want to finish exploring the Cary Brickyard site which is just south of Newton Hook on 9-J.

  3. michael-- i just discovered your blog. nice work. i shall be reading you often. i linked an ice story on my blog to this:

  4. So, I actually bought the barn that was build for the ice house which is up the hill, on county rt 46 over looking the hudson. It is a late dutch barn, which was apparently build to house the horses which were used to haul the enormous slabs of ice off of the hudson. We were never sure if it was build in 1883 or 1885, as the barn was signed by 3 builders, but never knew if it was a 3 nor 5. I think we can officially say 1885.

  5. This is a wonderful blog which I just discovered. My father was from Newton Hook born in 1905. I had no idea of this history.