News & Features

The Ice Age

During the first part of the 20th century, ice was one of the Flathead Valley’s most important commodities

Every January, during the first half of the 20th century, all eyes in the Flathead Valley would turn to the lakes and ponds. As the days got colder, a thin layer of ice would form on top of the water, growing thicker by the day. Once it was at least six inches thick, one of the most important harvests of the year would begin.

From 1890 until the 1960s, ice was one of the Flathead Valley’s most important and lucrative commodities. Every winter, teams of laborers would trudge out onto the ice to harvest upwards of 18,000 tons of frozen water that would be used all year long to help keep food fresh. But those who remember the Flathead Valley’s ice age will tell you it wasn’t easy.

“It was cold, hard work,” says local historian Kevin McCready, who has studied the harvest for more than a decade.

In the 1700s, only the wealthy had ice. Every winter, well-to-do people across the world would hire workers to carve up ice and store it in a cool, dark pit so that it could be retrieved the following summer. In the early 1800s, an enterprising young Bostonian named Frederic Tudor surmised that he could make a handsome profit if he carved out the ice from Massachusetts’ frozen ponds and sent it to the Caribbean. He purchased a ship and, in February 1806, loaded it with ice bound for the West Indies. Unsurprisingly, the locals thought he was insane.

“No joke,” the Boston Gazette declared. “A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out of this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

Ice harvest on Whitefish Lake in 1952. Courtesy of the Collection of EB Gilliland

That first shipment proved to be a complete failure. Upon arriving in the Caribbean, Tudor found that no one was interested in buying his ice and his stock quickly melted. But Tudor kept at it and began to come up with clever ways to protect his product. To keep the ice cool in transit, he packed it with sawdust that slowed melting. He also developed icehouses that could keep the product cold at its destination until he could sell it. The icehouses featured thick walls packed with sawdust that would keep the ice cool for months.

By the 1830s, Tudor was making a handsome profit shipping New England ice all around the world. When Tudor died in 1864, he was worth more than $200 million in today’s dollars and had forever carved himself into history as the “ice king.”

In 1878, Gustavus Franklin Swift, an American businessman who founded a meatpacking empire, hired an engineer to design a new type of rail car. The refrigerator car featured two compartments: one for meat and produce and another for ice. Trains with refrigerator cars would stop every few hundred miles so fresh ice could be loaded aboard to keep the freight cool. The refrigerated freight car allowed Swift to ship meat all across the country and changed how Americans eat.

As more people populated the Flathead Valley in the 1890s, many of them built their own small icehouses supplied with ice from local ponds, lakes and rivers. People who lived in town often purchased it from local harvesters, who delivered it throughout the summer to keep people’s iceboxes chilled. With arrival of the Great Northern Railway in 1892, the need for ice increased dramatically. According to McCready, the railroad built its first icehouse in Kalispell in 1894, and it supplied freight cars loaded with local produce bound for eastern markets. The railroad’s need for ice was so important that when the Great Northern rerouted its mainline through Whitefish in 1904, the very first structure built by the railroad was its icehouse.

During the first decade of the 1900s, the amount of produce shipped by rail increased significantly, especially from the fruit fields of Washington. In 1915, the railroad harvested enough ice from the Marion area to fill 512 freight cars, according to McCready. More than 8,000 tons were shipped to the icehouse in Whitefish, while 1,800 tons filled the icehouse in Kalispell. The rest was distributed to icehouses in Rexford, Troy and Wenatchee, Washington.

Bay Point Ice. Courtesy of the Collection of EB Gilliland

By the 1940s, American railroads consumed 16 million tons of ice annually. Most of the ice was used to keep refrigerated cars cool, but about 3 million tons were used for iceboxes on passenger trains.

In 1923, the Great Northern created the Western Fruit Express Company to oversee the ice harvest and operation of icehouses along its route. Every winter, the company would hire locals to harvest ice on Little Bitterroot Lake, Whitefish Lake, Lake Five and elsewhere. The harvest usually began in late January and lasted until March, or whenever the railroad had enough ice to last the season. During particularly cold winters in the Flathead, the railroad would occasionally harvest ice to be shipped to icehouses out of state. Ice was also used locally around the valley, and some years it was even plucked out of Whitefish Lake and used to build the Whitefish Winter Carnival throne in the middle of Central Avenue. 

Glen Brown, a local farmer, got the contract to harvest ice for the railroad in the mid-1950s. Glen’s son Richard recalled recently that back in those days, locals had to be a “jack of all trades,” and his father would usually work the farm in the summer and then harvest ice and Christmas trees come winter. Richard, now 75, remembers helping his dad with the ice harvest most winters.

Once the ice was thick enough in January, he and his dad would drive out onto Whitefish Lake to plow two or three acres of snow. Moving the snow off the ice not only made the ice more accessible, but also it helped the freezing process. Snow usually serves as an insulator, Richard said, and once it was removed the lake would freeze even quicker. But plowing the snow wasn’t always an easy task.

“It could be a scary job,” Richard recalls. “You always kept the doors of the truck open just in case it fell through the ice and you needed to get out quick.”

McCready said in the early days of the ice harvest, horses were used to clear the ice, and at least a few drowned when they fell through.

Once the ice was at least a foot thick, the harvest would begin in earnest. Laborers would cut out a huge rectangle of ice, which was then cut into a grid, like an icy spreadsheet. Laborers always left a few inches of ice at the very bottom of the cut to keep it together as one piece. The massive sheet of ice, also known as a “float,” was then maneuvered to shore, where it was broken apart one “ribbon” of ice at a time. The “ribbon” was then floated into a channel that led to the shore. In the channel, laborers used a spud bar to break free each block, or “cake,” which weighed between 250 and 350 pounds each The workers then used pipe poles that could be 12 or 14 feet long to push or drag the ice through the channel onto a ramp, where it was brought ashore and loaded onto trucks.

Richard said they could load two trucks at a time from two different ramps and each team would race each other to see who could send a loaded truck out first. Richard said while it was cold and hard work, it was also fun.

“Sometimes we would run across the individual ice cakes,” Richard said. “You had to run like hell because if you slowed down you fell right through. Us young guys would do that for fun, usually on warm days, when we were full of piss and vinegar and wanted to show off.”

The ice on Whitefish Lake was usually moved to the Great Northern’s icehouses along East Edgewood Drive. There the ice would sit until summer when it was used to “ice” passing trains. McCready said at one point, the Great Northern could ice 170 cars at a time, with about 85 cars parked on each side of the long buildings on the north end of the rail yard. Charlie Abell, 78, worked for two summers at the icehouses. His shift was from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., and whenever a train full of Washington produce pulled into town, he was one of the many men responsible to reload it with ice.

Abell said they would use tongs and poles to move the ice inside the sheds onto an elevator, where it would then be moved up or down, depending on where it was needed. The ice was then moved onto a platform outside, where it was pushed across a wooden plank into the refrigerator car. Abell said moving the 300-pound ice cakes took some effort and rookies were not always successful.

“When I started in 1960, I think about half of the ice I moved ended up on the ground and not in the freight car,” he said, while adding that there were so many trains to ice that he got plenty of practice. “There wasn’t a lot of standing around in that job. There were a lot of busy nights.”

But those busy nights began to dwindle in the 1960s as more railroads adopted mechanically refrigerated freight cars that could travel hundreds or thousands of miles without being iced. McCready said the last recorded ice harvest in the Flathead Valley was in 1972, when about 2,000 tons were harvested.  The icehouses in Whitefish were soon abandoned, and in 1977, the railroad let the Whitefish Fire Department set the buildings ablaze so its firefighters could practice responding to structure fires. It was the end of the ice age in the Flathead Valley.

“The advent of the mechanical refrigerator car meant the ice harvest just melted away,” Richard said.

Special thanks to Kevin McCready for sharing his research.