Keeping food from spoiling by keeping it cool has a long and storied history. But it wasn’t until home ice boxes became available that regular folks could afford refrigeration technology.
Those original ice boxes were pieces of furniture. Made, generally, of oak, they had a top compartment, lined with zinc, in which a block of ice would be placed. The cold was directed down into the cooling area by vents. As the ice melted, the cold water was likewise directed downwards to a collection tray at the bottom.
Ice was delivered to private homes and businesses by companies formed for the specific purpose.
But even before home ice boxes became all the rage, ice was being used to cool refrigerator cars hauling sides of beef and pork from the Armour and Swift packing plants in Chicago east to the markets in New York and other big cities.
By the 1870s, Gustavus Swift was doing very well in the meat business. Growing up on a New England farm, he started selling beef door to door on Cape Cod before opening his own string of butcher shops.
Looking for ways to expand his business, Swift carefully studied how beef got from the west, where it was raised, to the Eastern market. He found that virtually every steer destined for the East Coast market was shipped through Chicago. There, cattle were off-loaded so they could be fed and watered before completing their journey.
Swift figured the logical thing to do was to establish a meat packing facility in Chicago with the dressed beef shipped east. But there was a big problem with the plan in the 1870s: There was no reliable way to get dressed carcasses to the eastern market unspoiled year round. Granted, George Hammond, a Detroit meat packer and the namesake of Hammond, Ind., developed a crude ice-cooled railcar to ship his dressed pork east, but the design was inefficient and unreliable.
Swift, however, was convinced he could make money packing and shipping beef from Chicago.
He started by shipping his first consignments of dressed beef by rail during the winter, with the railcar doors left open to allow cold air to circulate among the sides of beef. But ever looking ahead, at the same time he commissioned engineer Andrew Chase to design the first successful refrigerated railcar.
Chase designed his new car with a compartment at either end to hold 500 pounds of ice and 100 pounds of salt each. Vents directed the air flow through the ice compartments and into the insulated interior as the train moved, using a series of vents. Roof vents released warmer air, which was forced to the ceiling by the colder, denser air below.
Using innovative loading of the dressed beef, the cold air could circulate, but the sides were unable to shift as the train traveled east. In addition, Swift established icing stations on the rail route so that the cars’ cooling apparatus could be kept fueled with ice.
An it took a LOT of ice. Swift & Company estimated that each carload of beef consumed 700 pounds of salt an as much ice by weight as beef shipped per carload.
During the 1880s, Swift’s company was using nearly a half-million tons of ice annually to ship his meat east—and he wasn’t the only meat packer using the technique by then.
So, along with the booming popularity of home ice boxes, the meat packers and other industries were also using lots of ice every year. Originally, ice was harvested close to where it was consumed by small local companies or, in the case of the packing industry, by the companies themselves. But that changed with the shear scale of the amounts needed. It wasn’t long before the thick ice behind every nearly every mill dam in the country was being harvested during the winter, packed between layers of sawdust in giant ice houses, and then doled out the rest of the year.
When the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road was finished in 1870, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity with the combination of rail transportation and the availability of ice behind several mill dams on the Fox River.
The first company to take advantage of the combination of available ice and the rail line was Chicago’s Caledonia Ice Company. Robert Hutchinson, the company’s owner, began work on a major ice storage facility in Yorkville in the fall of 1873. Hutchinson situated the new facility on land along the south bank of the Fox leased from the owners of the Paris Paper, Grist & Saw Mills, just upstream from the dam. Workers finished four interconnected ice houses, 20 feet high measuring a total of 100×100 feet, in time for the winter ice harvest.
As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 24, 1873: “The [ice] cakes are cut 22 inches square…the ice will be cut by ice plows, of which five will be used, each drawn by a horse. About 30 men will be employed through the winter and our to five in the summer. The company expects to ship three carloads, or 30 tons, to Chicago every night during the summer in cars fitted for the purpose.”
Sensing an opportunity, the Chicago firm of Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first icehouse at the old Village of Troy above the Parker mill dam north of Oswego in November 1874. The 60×102 foot icehouse was quickly filled with 15″ thick ice from the millpond. Ice harvested during the winter was then shipped on the rail line to markets near and far.
The venture was so successful that 13 more houses were quickly added and the railroad built a siding to make it easier to load carloads of ice. The company also built an elevator to hoist the large cakes of ice from the river up a multi-story scaffold. The cakes, weighing 200-400 pounds each, were skidded down the scaffolding to fill each house, layer by layer, each insulated with sawdust from the adjacent Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory. The company quickly became Oswego’s largest employer. In January 1879, 75 men worked on the ice harvest and in 1880, 584 railcar loads of ice were shipped from Oswego.
It was an industry, however, doomed by technology. First, increasing pollution of the Midwest’s rivers led to ice unfit for human consumption. Second, several bad years of ice harvests made the industry a chancy investment. Third, the ice houses, filled as they were with dried sawdust, were fire hazards. Two separate fires destroyed all of the Oswego ice houses; they were never rebuilt. Yorkville’s ice houses also burned, were rebuilt, and then burned again. And fourth, mechanical ice production proved more efficient and sanitary than harvesting it from lakes and streams.
Today, there is virtually no evidence remaining of the ice industry, which at one time made use of gigantic ice houses, steam powered elevators, and rail sidings and employed gangs of workers.