Crews of motley men toiled on thin ice
January 23, 2006
The Truckee area is well known for its ice harvest history. Ice ponds were built in Coldstream Valley, Donner Creek, Trout Creek and through the Martis Valley to Boca. There were also ice works down the Truckee River Canyon at Iceland, Floriston as well, as near Verdi. This industry relied on a large force of working men for periods as short as a few weeks each winter.Ice harvest crews in the Truckee area were a motley gathering of men. They were not hand-picked and most were not professionals. It is doubtful that the same crew gathered for the harvest two years in a row. Compared to the ice business in New England, where men worked for the same company for decades, the Sierra ice industry relied on a floating population to complete the harvest.Wandering workersThe cold of winter would drive the disappointed Nevada or Colorado prospector or miner, the unemployed Idaho or Montana cattle herder, the laid off logger from Maine or Washington, and other wandering workers of America toward the warm valleys of California. They came from everywhere in the country with their blankets over their shoulders, ready to camp, or ready to march.Sometimes they came alone or more often in small groups. On the way they stopped where they could find work. If the weather was right, they were hired on to work in the Truckee area ice ponds in the dead of winter. Their labor was sorely needed and they needed the money, a hot meal and a warm place to stay.They had never met before and when the harvest was done, they would move on and be unlikely to meet again. Many, if not all, followed the railroad tracks that spanned the country, which brought them to Truckee. Some of the ice harvesters were Truckee logging and lumbermen who did return every year, and they held the foremen and coveted elevator operator positions
If the ice was not thick enough or not covered with snow, and they really wanted to work, they would lie around Truckee until the ice pond superintendents were ready for them. The standby wages were not large, but since the ice companies might need them on a moment’s notice, they were given room and board at the ice pond boarding houses, sure of plenty to eat and a warm place to stay.While waiting for, or after, the harvest, with money to spend, they would wander the small town of Truckee, bored, and often causing trouble. The saloons would be full of the wanderers, telling the stories of their adventures around the country. More than a few ended up spending a night in the Truckee jail. Some committed more serious crimes and were sentenced to a month or two in the county jail in Nevada City.Waiting on the weatherThe work for the few locals who toiled year-round would start well before the cold weather set in. The wooden ice houses needed to be cleaned out and the chutes, switches and tracks that the ice blocks rode on needed to be put in proper condition to survive the harvest. Supplies needed to be put up for the working men, as well as feed for the horses used to score the ice and plow the snow. The ponds were flushed of debris and dams were repaired.Once the ice works were ready, it was time to wait and watch the weather. As the ice formed, the superintendents hoped for an early heavy snowfall, followed by a sharp cold snap. That would get the ice forming and cold nights would allow the formation of up to several inches a night of pure clear ice.On the other hand, the laborers would hope for a subsequent snowfalls that would fall on the ice pack. As the ice needed pure ice, not snow, this snow would need to be removed. The call would go out to the waiting men and they would put on their warmest clothes. Using teams of horses and men with shovels, they would plow and clear the snow off of the ice, then go back to waiting for more ice to form.
Warm rain, like the weather we had last month, would result in a soft ice pack and possibly a failure of an entire crop. Workers would then open up sluice gates on the dams and flush the ice pack out. The waiting game began again as new ice would hopefully form.Once the ice reached about a foot thick, if it ever did, the real work began. Often working at night by bonfires, the first crew would walk behind horses handling plows that scored the ice. Next a crew of men would break off rafts 22 inches wide by 6 feet long. They used heavy flat bars that weighed more than 50 pounds. Constantly lifting and slamming the bar into the scored ice, they worked on the edge of the open water, always careful they didn’t lose their balance and take a dunking.The rafts were then poled along by a crew of men with pikes, pushing them to a chute or elevator where they were further cut or broken into 22-inch-square cakes. The 300-pound cakes were then loaded into the ice house. Another crew inside would keep the ice moving, pushing and prodding until it reached its intended spot in the house. When the house was full, sawdust was used to cover the crop to insulate it. The doors were closed and it would sit until the heat of summer spiked a demand in the market.StrikeMuch of the ice was loaded directly onto railroad cars, taken to other ice houses throughout the West and used as needed in the summer. Either way, time was of the essence and the superintendents pushed the workers to work as fast as they could for as long as they could.When the harvest crews felt they could demand it, they went on strike for higher wages in the middle of the harvest. Sometimes they won and got concessions from the ice companies, but most often not. The companies would simply bring on another crew of men who wanted to work. For example, in 1886 a crew of men making $40 a month, plus board at the Truckee Ice Company on Martis Creek, struck for the same $60 a month that the other ice companies were paying. The company refused their demands and within 15 minutes, 34 of the 52 men packed their blankets and moved on to other ice work.As the Union Ice Company took control of the ice works in the 1890s, the wages hardly kept pace and some years there was a shortage of workers. In hard times there might be more men available than needed and wages were lowered. Labor saving devices, such as improved elevators, were added to works.
Dangerous jobDanger was ever present in the ice works. The most common injury treated by Truckee doctors were ice pick or piccaroon injuries to the leg or foot. This occurred both on the ice and in the houses. It occurred both in winter as well as in the summer as the ice was being removed and placed on railroad cars. Sometimes the injury was minor, but it could be very painful for a long time.Falls from the ice houses and elevators were common and sometimes resulted in permanent disability. Dunking from the ice breaking and men falling in would result in pneumonia, though rarely death. The railroad switching and moving could result in hand, foot and other body injuries.Frostbite was a common danger and many men lost fingers and toes. The clothing and boots were barely adequate to fight the wetness and cold of the ponds and houses. Horses might step on a man’s foot breaking or crippling it.During the summer, men would load ice blocks onto the top of refrigerator cars hauling fruit east. Falls from the cars, especially those being loaded at night, were common and sometimes fatal. These wandering men were sometimes heavy drinkers and often involved in fights resulting in injuries or death.The peak workforce around 1910 was as many as 1,500 men, with more than 1,000 working the ice pond at Boca in 1911. This was a big boost to the Truckee economy in a slow time of year.The peak period for Truckee’s ice harvest years was between 1880 and 1920. After that, improved electric refrigeration led to a decline and the last harvest came at Boca in the mid 1920s.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You may leave a message at 530-582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.