Donner Ice supplied the California agriculture industry | SierraSun.com
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Donner Ice supplied the California agriculture industry

Gordon Richards
Echoes from the Past

Truckee’s cold winter weather was welcomed by almost everyone as the year 1900 dawned. Not only did residents look forward to winter sports, but the local ice industry also depended on below-zero temperatures. This industry brought thousands of dollars of business to Truckee at a time that lumber had declined and tourism was seasonal and sparse.

One of the ice companies that took advantage of the sub-freezing conditions was the Donner Ice Company. Though its life was short, it contributed greatly to the Truckee economy while it lasted.

Back in 1872, Truckee butcher Joseph Marzen Sr. needed ice to serve his new slaughterhouse, on what is now West River Street, and for his downtown Truckee butcher shop. He had just purchased the meadow land between the Truckee River and Donner Lake. Donner Creek wound its way through these meadows that had previously seen emigrant wagons roll through, and many set up overnight camp.

Ice harvesting had been tried on the east end of Donner Lake by the Sitka Ice Company in 1868. But Donner Lake was a little too deep for good ice formation, and frequent windstorms broke up the ice pack several times before it could be harvested.

Marzen built a small pond on Donner Creek above the Central Pacific railroad trestle, near present day Highway 89. He built an icehouse with walls a foot thick and filled with sawdust. Marzen harvested the ice when it reached a foot thick and stored it in the house until he needed it during the summer.

It was common for Truckee businesses to have their own small ice operation, rather than depend on the larger ones at Boca, Prosser Creek or in the Truckee River canyon. Marzen harvested about 500 tons a season if the weather cooperated. He continued to operate the small ice harvesting operation into the 1890s.

By 1890, California’s agriculture industry had expanded, largely due to the availability of fast freight trains that could take produce to the East Coast. These fruit trains needed icing to keep the produce cool on the way east during the summer and fall harvest seasons. The only way this was possible was to cool the lightly insulated railcars with Truckee ice.

After a false start in 1887, Marzen formed the Donner Ice Company and started construction on a larger ice pond in 1894. A new rock and earthen dam was constructed by Reno contractor, James Mayberry, who in 1887, had built a similar dam at Donner Lake. It flooded an area of about 150 acres, in the area now occupied by Interstate 80.

Part of Marzen Meadows contained the site of the Graves, Reed, Murphy and Breen family cabins, and so the east end of the meadow was also known as Donner Meadows. In 1894, Marzen sold a one-acre plot of land to Truckee author and Donner Party historian Charles McGlashan: this included the Breen family cabin site and eventually the Donner Monument.

During the ice pond and dam construction, artifacts of emigrants who camped on the meadows were found, possibly even those of the nearby Graves family shelter, in which one of the scattered groups of the Donner Party tragedy tried to survive the winter of 1846-47.

When complete, the Donner Ice Company was the largest ice pond in the mountains, at least until other ponds were expanded at Boca and Prosser Creek. The first season, all the ice was loaded directly onto railcars and shipped to other locations further east on the Southern Pacific. A rail spur from the main line facilitated fast movement of the ice.

In November of 1895, 100 men were at work building a new timber-framed ice house on the south side of the pond. The 300-foot long structure contained a patent elevator, the only one of its kind on the West Coast. It had a capacity for hoisting 70 blocks of ice a minute, and could be raised as the ice house filled up. The yearly harvest varied from 15,000 to 25,000 tons.

In late fall, the pond was flushed and refilled, and the workmen waited for cold weather. Once the ice started to form, it had to be kept free of snow. The hope was for very cold weather, below zero if they were lucky, that would thicken the ice to a foot thick. Not every year was successful. A heavy series of snow storms or a warm rain could spell disaster for the season.

On the other hand, a cold spell might produce two crops in a winter, with the excess stacked outside the house, to be shipped out to other ice houses as soon as possible. In 1902, a late January cold snap that hit 28 degrees below zero allowed the company to harvest the cheapest and fastest crop in the Truckee River basin.

The harvesting operation was almost perfect in execution, a well rehearsed dance of horses, men and machinery. Only the clearest ice was wanted, as it lasted the longest. Snow had to be plowed and scraped off to the sides of the pond. Horses would pull ice cutters and then plows along to score the pack into neat rectangular blocks.

Men with long saws cut the strips into 16-foot long cakes, which were then pulled on the water over to the elevator. At the bottom, the cakes were broken into 2-foot square cakes and up they went on the endless chain into the house. Once inside the house, they were stacked a layer at a time until the house was full. Then the ice was covered with sawdust and the doors closed tight.

Almost from the beginning, the local management of the ice operation was in the hands of William Blinn. He ran the crews in all seasons and was the manager up to the end of the ice harvests. Another well-known employee was Frank Williams, who kept detailed records on the weather, ice production and the many visitors to the ice camp.

The nearby village contained living quarters for up to 150 men, who were needed to quickly harvest the ice during the winter. A smaller crew was employed during the summer to load out the ice onto railcars.

Not every day was work. Trout were planted and year-round fishing was a popular pastime. A small boat was always in use during warm summer days. Ice skating and cross country skiing from Truckee were very healthy winter activities. Observers of the harvest operations sometimes reached as many as 200 guests, who rode sleighs from Truckee and marveled at the tightly choreographed movements.

The dangers of working in the business were many. A carpenter was killed as ice houses were being erected in January 1896. Falls from bridges, the elevator, railcars, and the roofs were very common. Ice pick and picaroon stab wounds, saw cuts and axe wounds were treated regularly by Truckee doctors. Sanitation wasn’t the greatest, and frequent episodes of illness swept the crew.

1904 was a notable year. Twenty-one feet of snow fell during the winter, a telephone line was built from Truckee, and five employees were held up and robbed of their earnings while heading to Truckee to celebrate the end of the harvest.

By 1903, the ice was contracted to the Continental Fruit Express and the Armour Car lines, who used it to cool railcars going east. They stopped bringing full fruit trains down the Donner ice spur and instead, loaded all of the trains at Truckee. The ice from Donner Creek was filling more than a dozen boxcars a day during the summer shipping season.

Work was often done at night with electric arc lights powered by a steam-powered generator, lighting up the whole valley from Donner Lake to Truckee. The steam engine also powered a water pump for flooding the top of the ice with a thin layer of water to freeze each night.

Through the 1906 to 1910 period, constant improvements were made, making the plant as efficient as possible. New machinery, a new icehouse, and a new concrete dam were added, doubling the capacity. Most of these were funded by the new corporate owners, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and its subsidiary, The Pacific Fruit Express Company.

They even erected a white wooden cross near the pond, marking the location of the Graves family cabin. The cross would last a few decades, until replaced and relocated by modern development.

The end of the line

As often happens in Truckee history, fire ended the plans and dreams of the company. On Dec. 21, 1910, just as the ice was forming, the ice houses were set on fire by either arson, or by an accidental fire, and the dry wooden buildings went up in flames. The smoke alerted the Truckee Volunteer Fire Department, which attempted to reach the scene.

Snow-covered roads made it impossible to fight the fire. The Southern Pacific fire train couldn’t get to the plant until the rails were re-laid on the spur. By then it was too late to save anything. The icehouse, the elevator and all other machinery were destroyed. Footprints in the snow led toward the railroad tracks, but railroad detectives who investigated could find no trace of the suspects.

Ice was harvested a month later, but the house was not rebuilt, and ice harvests became sporadic. The pond remained, and became a favorite spot for picnics, fishing and swimming in the summer, and ice skating in the winter. Ice company officials used the pond as an ideal summer resort location. In the 1920s, several Hollywood movies were filmed in Marzen Meadows and on the pond.

The ice industry continued in the Truckee River basin until 1926, when the advent of commercial refrigeration ended the business.


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