Prosser Creek’s ice once cooled the nation
In the last “Echoes From the Past,” I wrote about the start of the Summit Ice Company. The company had its beginnings on Donner Summit in 1868. To escape the heavy snow, a new operation was built in 1872 at Prosser Creek, just above the Truckee River. Here a large dam and icehouse were built, and the successful harvest of clear ice commenced every winter, when sub-freezing temperatures came to the Truckee area.The first icehouse had a capacity of 10,000 tons, and was built along Prosser Creek in a semi-circle arc to conform to the narrow canyon. A railroad spur was built up from the Central Pacific Railroad, so ice could be loaded directly from the icehouse onto railroad cars. The ice was sent to the mines of Virginia City, the bars, stores and homes of the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco.The company had been founded by Benjamin B. Redding, Major M. Richardson, and W.E. Brown. Redding continued to run the iceworks until his death in 1882. In addition to his interest in the ice industry, he also served as the Truckee area state fish commissioner. His involvement was instrumental in getting the Summit Ice Co. and other ice companies and sawmills to install effective fish ladders, so that migrating Lahontan cutthroat trout had at least a fighting chance at survival. Richardson would leave the company in 1874 to help found the Peoples Ice Company, and would continue in the Truckee ice industry for another decade. Brown managed the San Francisco offices and had little involvement in the iceworks themselves.New ice house builtIn 1876, under the direction of Superintendent Jacob Hoehn, a new icehouse was built just below and on the opposite side of Prosser Creek from the original house. It was also built in an arc to accommodate the bend of the creek. It was 300 feet long by 50 feet wide. This would increase the storage capacity of the plant to 18,000 tons.
Three feet of sawdust was placed under the house for insulation, and a 3-foot-thick loft of sawdust insulated the roof, rather than placing the sawdust directly on the ice. The insulation was good enough that a crop could be kept two years without melting.The ice was floated down to the house on a flume, then transferred onto a ramp that took the 22-inch-square ice blocks into the house. The trestle work alone cost the company $15,000 to construct. Lumber for the trestle was provided by the Nevada and California sawmill on upper Prosser Creek, whose flume ran right through the iceworks operations. They also flumed the insulating sawdust down from the mill.To increase the nightly thickness of ice that was created, a small dam led to a flume that would flood the top surface of the ice with enough water to freeze in one night. This would quickly build up enough ice so that in most years the harvest could begin in December. By 1876, James McDonald was the foreman of the ice plowing and harvesting. That winter, the conditions warranted ice cutting starting at three in the morning and continuing it until dark. The ice was 16 20 inches thick in the 187677 season, thicker than the usual 12 inches needed to start harvesting. Eighty-four men were working on the harvest, which not only filled the two icehouses with 18,000 tons of ice, but also shipped large quantities directly to icehouses in the lower elevations of California. Twenty carloads were shipped for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Los Angeles as well in the spring of 1877.On a typical summer day, 10 railcars shipped out loaded with ice. In the late 1870s, a large quantity of ice was shipped to Virginia City, mostly for use in cooling off the miners working deep in the earth where temperatures could reach 120 degrees.In the summer the pond would attract a few tourists, who enjoyed moonlit boat rides, fishing, dances, and good food. James McDonald also raised geese and ducks. He also tried raising onions and potatoes at times. Once the ice harvest was done, and the pond re-froze ice skaters were invited to come from Truckee to enjoy themselves.
During 1882, Redding and Hoehn repaired the abandoned Alder Creek Flume and cut firewood along Alder Creek. They floated it down to the iceworks for their winter fuelwood, and sold a large amount to the Central Pacific Railroad.As the Southern Pacific Railroad expanded across Arizona and New Mexico, large quantities of ice would be shipped to fill icehouses along that rail line. The ice was used to cool passengers and kept Southern California fruit and vegetables cool on the route east. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, increasing amounts of ice were diverted to the agriculture industry. Without it, California could not effectively ship its produce east.Weather dependentindustryWeather was the determining factor in the ice business. Cold weather might not start until January some years. A good season saw temperatures drop below zero regularly throughout December with little snow. That didn’t always happen. As we saw in December, a cold snap might be followed by warmer weather, melting the ice. The recent colder weather would have allowed a second crop to form and be harvested.A warm rain could ruin the crop entirely and the whole icepack would be broken up and flushed out. Heavy snow required constant snow plowing and scraping of the snow from the clear ice. If all of the ice companies got in a good crop, then prices might fall and the value of the ice would drop. It was not always a predictable and profitable business. The industry had been organized in 1872 with the formation of the Pacific Ice Company, and it was reincorporated in 1874, but it did not last long. In 1885 the Union Ice Company was formed and the Summit Ice Co. sold the Prosser Creek iceworks to them. However, the cooperative agreement did not last but a few years. Many different companies came and went, but the ice was still harvested in the same ways. By 1915, the final Union Ice Company was formed and took over all of the Truckee River Ice operations.
ImprovementsIn the summer of 1883, the height of the dam was raised, increasing the size of the pond to 36 acres, allowing for more ice to be cut. In February of 1885 a new, 124-foot-long building for lodging and dining was built on the east side of the pond. They also built a new 50-by-300-foot icehouse below the dam, raised the timber and rock dam 4 feet, and moved the rail spur to the east side of the creek.In 1886 the old dam was torn out, and a new higher one was erected. In 1887 a new icehouse was built further down Prosser Creek, on the east side that added additional storage capacity to the works. On July 15, 1893 the original curved icehouse caught fire burned in a spectacular blaze that the railroad fire engines could not put out. The whole ice crop was still inside, and most of it was saved, being moved to other ice houses at Boca. At the time it was the largest single icehouse on the west coast. Rather than rebuild, they shipped out more ice in the winter to icehouses in other places.The pond was further enlarged in the summer of 1905 when a 50-foot-high-by-120-foot-long concrete dam was built just downstream of the old one. The pond was expanded to more than 60 acres, requiring up to 250 men to work the iceworks during the short harvest season. This final construction would last the operation until the final harvest, which occurred in either 1917 or 1918 depending on the source of the information.The remains of the concrete dam is still visible halfway between the Truckee River and the Prosser Creek Reservoir, another echo from Truckee’s past. Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893.