Truckee’s icemen loved the cold weather

Gordon Richards

The recent cold weather is nothing new to the Truckee area, in fact, in the late 1800s the cold temperatures were highly anticipated by the Truckee River icemen. Without sustained below-freezing temperatures, the Truckee area’s second most important economic enterprise would not have prospered. While there were more than a dozen ice production operations in the Truckee River basin, one of the most successful was the Summit Ice Company, which took advantage of nature’s geography to produce clear pure ice. Much of what we know today about the ice industry comes from ice industry historian Tom Macaulay and from the files of the Truckee Republican.Soon after the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra, businessmen began to study and experiment with the cold clear waters of the Truckee River and its tributaries to determine if a successful ice crop could be harvested. The first companies were small scale on local ponds and lakes.The Summit Ice Company, as its name implies, started its first operation on Donner Summit. In 1868 small quantities of ice were shipped to Sacramento for distribution by the west coast ice industry monopoly, the Sitka Ice Company. In 1870, Summit began sales and distribution of its own ice to customers in San Francisco and other points along the railroad. By 1871 they had capacity of 8,500 tons per season.The lack of space and the heavy snowfall on the summit caused the company to look elsewhere to produce its highly prized crop. They found ideal conditions at Prosser Creek, just above the Truckee River. Here it was colder than Donner Summit, as the colder air from the Truckee River and Prosser Creek drained to the lowest point. Less snow fell, requiring less scraping of snow off of the top of the ice. Most importantly, the steep walled canyon held its cold temperatures during all four seasons, allowing for year round storage of the ice.

The move to Prosser CreekThe Summit Ice Company moved its operations to Prosser Creek in 1872. The owners of the operation were Benjamin B. Redding, Major M. Richardson, and William E. Brown. They began construction by extending a railroad spur up the creek, building an ice house 500 feet long by 40 feet wide and 25 feet high, and a pond with a surface area of more than 20 acres. The dam was typical of its day, being formed by notched timber cribbing filed with rocks. A fish ladder was built into the 29-foot-high dam. During the summer, the pond was used to store logs for the sawmills downstream.To fit the storage building into the canyon, the icehouse was built on a curve, in almost a semi-circle form on the east side of the creek. The icehouse was built right below the dam, allowing the harvested ice blocks to be slid right into the house. The capacity of this first icehouse was 10,000 tons. The walls were a foot thick and filled with sawdust for insulation.By Dec. 21, 1872 the works were complete, and 80 Truckee residents went down on a special train to celebrate. A luncheon was held and a tour of the facility showed off the fine work done. By then 12 inches of ice had already formed, and harvesting had begun. Speed was very important, as the cold weather could warm up or heavy snow could fall and contaminate the ice.Once the ice was stored, most of the men were laid off. As summer came on, the demand for the cold clear ice surged. The ice was used in drinks, to keep food cold, and in the mines of Virginia City, among many other uses. The ice would be loaded on boxcars and shipped out on a daily basis. In May of 1874, more than 400 tons a week were being shipped out, mostly to San Francisco. Competition from other natural ice companies in the Truckee River basin was fierce. Since the market depended on weather conditions both at the manufacturing end and at the consumption end, the market conditions changed from year to year. There was also some competition from artificial manufactured ice in San Francisco, though it provided an inferior soft ice.In 1874 the Summit Ice Co joined the Boca Ice Co., The Nevada Ice Co., located just downstream from Prosser Creek and the Sitka Ice Co. to form the Pacific Ice Company. The consolidation allowed the individual companies to operate their own production facilities, but they worked together on the distribution and marketing of the ice.

A tour of the worksIn December of 1874 a tour was given to the Charles F. McGlashan of the Truckee Republican by James Brogan and Jacob Hoehn who were the superintendents and would remain involved in the operations for many years. As with most businesses away from town, the operation had its own boarding house and dining room. The guests were always treated to a good square meal. Each fall the pond, 1,600 feet long by 160 feet wide, was cleared of debris, and the supplies stocked for the winter season. Once the freezing commenced, the workmen were hired, mostly laid off loggers, and the work began. Once the first few inches of ice formed, men were put on the ice to shovel any snow that fell. Once it got 6 to 7 inches thick the horses could be put on the ice to plow and scrape the snow off. Any deeper snowfall than 1 foot required the men to shovel it into sleighs and haul it out of the ice. The ideal thickness of the ice at harvest was 12 inches. Once that thickness was reached, if it was, horses were also used to score the ice. The icefield was marked into squares 22 inches square. The first line was marked using a straight edge, and the following marks were made using a custom made gauge attached to a modified plow. The steel plows were about 4 feet long, and were pulled by one horse with two men guiding the horse. It took about five or six passes with the horse to cut the ice the 7 to 8 inches deep needed to get a clean break of the ice.The stables for the horses were well kept and warm, as the horses were almost as important as the workingmen. Many of the horses were used for logging during the summer months. Special ice shoes were used on the horses to allow the animals to keep their feet in the slippery conditions.

Using ice breakers, the ice was broken into cakes of two squares wide by 6 squares long. A clear water channel about 4 feet wide was opened from the start of the cutting down to the dam. The cakes were poled along by men with ice spikes. Once they reached the dam, they were broken into squares by men using heavy chisels. Most of the ice was harvested in the late night and early morning hours.The most exciting scene was in the storehouse. The ice was gravity propelled down a 2-foot-wide ramp with “the speed of a wild engine.” Block followed block in a quick succession as men with long hooks constantly changed the direction of the blocks into different parts of the house. The blocks had to be kept on the move, otherwise they would freeze in place. One layer at a time was built up, and a one foot gap was left along the walls, later to be filled in with sawdust. Once the house was filled up, a one foot layer of sawdust placed over the top and the harvest was done. Using up to 100 men, they were able to harvest and store up to 1,000 tons in 10 hours.The season of 187475 was excellent, with two crops harvested and stored. One was 12 inches thick, the other was 16 inches thick.There’s more to the story, of expansion, a newer concrete dam, and takeover by the Union Ice Company, that will be in another column. The Prosser Creek ice works were in constant use up until modern refrigeration took over in the early 1920s. Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is Leave a message at 582-0893.

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