History of Truckee ice harvesting industry
When Reno native Tom Macaulay talks about the ice harvests of the late 1800s, it almost sounds as though he lived through the times himself.
In fact, it was his grandfather, Thomas McAulay Sr., who was one of the pioneers of Truckee’s ice industry.
Before mechanization brought cheap and readily available ice to California in the early 20th century, ice was harvested along lakes and rivers in colder climates. Truckee’s cold mountain air and nearby waters provided an ideal setting for ice companies to thrive.
At Boca, the ruins of a more prosperous time are visible from the road. If you look closely, you can see the old foundation of Ice House No. 5 nestled between the river and the railroad tracks.
America’s first ice harvest took place in Boston in 1806. The ice created there was shipped all over the world, including exotic ports like China and Australia.
The industry didn’t move westward to Truckee until 1868 when Truckee Ice and Boca Ice began operations.
Some ice harvesting methods may seem a bit primitive, but it was a cheap and effective system.
An ice pond was created by damming up a stream and flooding the upstream canyon. Once frozen, the pond was “marked off” with lines scribed into the surface by handsaw. The field was cut again with a horse-drawn marker until a checkerboard of blocks remained.
From the banks, crewmen cut out rafts, 2 blocks by 6 blocks, to access the field. The harvesters then used “pike” poles to drag the floating blocks to a conveyer belt called an elevator, where it was cut into smaller blocks to be shipped by train or stored in ice houses. Typically, an ice block was 22 inches square.
Amazingly, ice could be stored for up to three years in an ice house despite the lack of mechanical refrigeration. Inside the warehouse, double outside walls were insulated by sawdust, which was also piled two feet high on the blocks.
According to recent articles by Macaulay, in the late 19th century, ice was a luxury for only the wealthiest, and was used mainly in upscale San Francisco hotels and bars. Very little was used locally.
It was also used in nearby Nevada mines, where temperatures could soar over 125 degrees on the rocks and 170 in the water. After 15 minutes of work, miners would be allowed ice water. As much as 95 pounds of ice were allocated for each miner every day.
In 1872, Virginia City’s Consolidated Mine used more than 1,000 tons of ice.
The local ice was also used to keep fruit cool in rail cars known as the Pacific Fruit Express. The express carried fruit from California to the East Coast.
Macaulay, a retired civil engineer, recalls seeing their yellow railcars as a child, but by then the days of ice cooling had been replaced by mechanical refrigeration in the rail cars.
He became interested in ice harvests while trying to research his family history.
“I couldn’t find much,” recalled Macaulay of what set in motion a lifelong passion for historical information. The family connection to ice harvesting made him seek out stories and photographs from the days of the harvests.
Most of the men who worked the Boca ice harvests were lumberjacks in the summer. With harvesting seasons as short as one week and rarely longer than a month, the work was short-term.
The average day for an ice harvester began at dawn and rarely ended before the sun went down. They even had to work all night sometimes. If the day’s temperature didn’t drop below freezing, the ice would have to be harvested at night by the light of a bonfire.
It was not easy work, but it paid well. An ice harvester could make $3 a day, including room and board.
In the days before unionization, men would perform a specific task on the ponds, moving on to help with other duties when they were finished.
“It wasn’t like today,” says Macaulay, “where a man assigned to hammer won’t touch a pair of pliers. They worked together and helped each other.”
Thomas McAulay Sr. (the spelling has been altered by later generations) was born in 1830 in Cherry Valley, N.Y. At 22, he led a wagon train across the United States with pioneer Ezra Meeker. They settled in Nevada City where McAulay went to work as a miner.
In 1868, during the early days of local ice harvests, McAulay ended up as a harvester at an ice plant in Tinker’s Station, now Soda Springs.
The main competitors in those days were the American-Russian Sitka Ice Co., Summit Ice, Nevada Mountain Lakes Ice and Boca Ice. McAulay soon went to work for Summit, where he stayed until 1872.
By 1881, he became supervisor of San Francisco operations at the Union Ice Co., but, as his grandson recalls, “he was too freewheeling for them.” McAulay sold out his stock in the company and moved to the Truckee Ice Co.
He later left them to form the Tahoe Ice Co. where his partners were Warren Richardson and John Moody along with their three wives. In a divorce, McAulay lost his interest in the company. His wife later sold her interest for $30,000, and the company went on to make over $100,000 as a direct result of his contributions. According to his grandson, McAulay never saw a penny of it.
After the divorce, he moved to Reno, becoming a farmer and watchman. Despite winning a court battle to recover his shares, he died a pauper, his money tied up in fighting appeals.
For a short time in history, ice harvesting was big business. Ice companies sprang up all along the Truckee River, and even a brewery was established as a result of Boca’s proximity to cold mountain waters.
At its peak, Truckee’s ice harvest produced 300,000 tons of ice in a single year. New York’s Hudson River generated 3,000,000 tons that same year.
But World War I soon brought mechanization to the ice industry and shut down the old ice houses, leaving abandoned buildings and crumbling foundations.
Today, Tom Macaulay III stands beside the Truckee trying to picture it exactly the way it was.
“There was a hotel right there,” he says, pointing to a small patch of land that lies beside Boca’s train tracks.
When asked whether he would prefer to have lived in the days of his grandfather, Macaulay is realistic.
“No,” he said, “this is a better time now.”
Macaulay surveys the once-thriving area, squinting at the afternoon sun. He knows most people don’t even notice the remnants of another time as they head out for a day of fishing on Boca. He’s struggling to keep the history of the ice harvests alive through articles, slide shows and, maybe someday, a book.
The days of railroad barons, pioneers and ice harvesters are gone, but Tom Macaulay carries a little bit of the past with him. He only hopes people won’t forget.
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