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Interpreting the Evidence

Ice Harvesting, Poling Cakes of Ice

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Capital District
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Ice Harvesting, Poling Cakes of Ice, Hudson River, 1912 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A group of men using ice pike poles to guide blocks through a chip canal to an icehouse, Hudson River, Stuyvesant Landing, 1912.
Historical Context
The first step in the ice harvesting process was to plow away the layers of snow found on top of the ice. Using a team of horses or donkeys that pulled a large snowplow, the snow was pushed into large mounds on the banks of the river. Then a measurement of ice thickness was necessary to determine a good area for the ice field. In order to tell how thick the ice was in an area, a worker would use a large tool with a corkscrew-shaped bit called an ice auger. The ice auger would bore a hole down to the bottom of the ice. A long metal ruler was then inserted into the hole to measure the thickness of the ice. These measurements would determine if the ice was thick enough to harvest.

After locating a desirable ice field, the ice field workers would lead teams of horses or donkeys that pulled sharp plows. By plowing once horizontally across the ice and once vertically across the ice, these sharp plows would mark out square blocks. After the blocks were marked, men with long hand saws, called ice saws, would cut along the marks, freeing the blocks of ice from the ice pack. An ice saw is over 5' 8" tall, with thirty razor-sharp teeth. If the ice still was not freed from the ice pack after sawing, or if the ice cake refroze to another, a breaker bar was used. A breaker bar was a long pole resembling a flat pitchfork. A man would strike downward into the ice with this tool to help free the ice.

After the ice saws and breaker bars were used to loosen the cut blocks from the ice pack, the ice cakes were transported from the ice field to the icehouse. The cakes were very large, being anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five inches thick. These cakes were too heavy to be lifted out of the ice pack, so they were floated to the icehouses down a canal, known as the chip canal, connecting the ice field and the icehouse. The workers would guide the ice cakes down the chip canal using a pike pole, which was a long pole with a sharp harpoon-like pick at the end of it. Some men paddled canoes through the chip canal all night to keep this waterway from freezing over. As they rowed through the canal, the men would rock their boats back and forth in order to keep the water moving so it wouldn't freeze.

At the end of the chip canal was the icehouse elevator, a steep incline leading up into the icehouse. From the chip canal, the ice cakes were heaved up onto a conveyor belt and brought through the icehouse windows, which could be up to 90 feet high. Inside the house, the conveyor belt sloped down to the storage room. At the end of the down chute stood a pair of workers, called ice switchers, with large ice picks. There would be a right-handed ice switcher and a left-handed ice switcher.  The ice switchers had to be very strong, because as the ice came down the chute, the men had to simultaneously grab the ice with their picks and then swing the ice cakes over to another belt, so they could be moved into an interior room. The down chute relied on gravity alone to move the ice, so there were no breaks! Due to the force of the ice, ice switchers suffered many hurt shoulders and backs. This made the job of ice switcher a dangerous one.

Some quick facts about ice thickness:
2" thick ice will usually support a man.
4" thick ice will usually support a horse.
5" thick ice is generally safe for a team of horses and a loaded wagon of 2 tons.
18" thick ice will support a railway train.

Essential Question
How does geography impact local economies?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the impact of geography on the local economy.
Historical Challenges
The Chinese, Greek, Romans, Spanish, French, and Italians all had early refrigeration systems. How did their methods compare to the American icebox?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: The Ice King, Redrick Tudor, experienced a 66% melting rate in 1806. Later, he had the melting rate down to 6%. How much ice would he have to ship in order to ensure a delivery of 125 pounds to a local hotel?
Science: Experiment with natural and synthetic insulators.
English Language Arts: Describe the process of the production and delivery of ice. Write a historical fiction piece about a tragedy on the ice.