Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chicago's Ice Harvest -- March 24, 1858

You can appreciate the advantage of a lake with the descriptor "Crystal"
Just got back from the kitchen where I filled my glass with crushed ice from the automatic dispenser on the refrigerator and added some ice-cold water as well.  We take the simplicity of both ice and water for granted these days.   Meat stays frozen until we need to throw it on the grill, and milk is always cold and fresh. 

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century things were far different, and Chicagoans trying to get through the sizzling days of summer depended on the iceman, working for companies that had harvested ice during the long winter and stored it until it was needed.

Places as far away as Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and Wolf Lake in Indiana furnished ice for the city, ice that was the product of fresh, unpolluted lakes in the middle of the countryside. Clearly, though, it was far cheaper to harvest ice from the river that ran right through the middle of the city and store it in warehouses that were right on that river.

Ice Harvest on Lake Calumet (Chicago Daily News Archive)
There was only one problem, though.  The river was really, really filthy.  One can clearly see that from a letter written to The Chicago Tribune and published on this date, March 24, in 1858.

Referring to an earlier article that listed the establishments polluting the river, the writer named, one after another, the businesses that dumped their waste into the stream that ran along their property lines.  On the North Branch there was a large slaughterhouse near Clybourne Avenue, and next to it was a hog feeding establishment where at least a thousand hogs were kept.  Then came a glue factory next to which were two ice houses. 

There then came a half dozen tanneries where sheep skins were washed in the river, and just before the junction with the main stream was Crosby’s distillery which dumped all of the used mash into the stream that ran in front of it.  Opposite the distillery was one last glue factory that was “the general depository for all the hogs that are suffocated on the various railroad trains entering the city; also for dead horses, cattle, &c., in fact for any animal substance that can be manufactured into glue.  The refuse matter from the cooking of all this animal substance, of course is run into the river.”

The writer then turned to the ice that was being harvested from the waters of the river.  He wrote, “Imagine what filthy stuff it must be—a compound of all the refuse of our tanneries, glue factories, slaughterhouses, cow stables, &c., to say nothing of the immense number of cess pools which the new sewerage system now empties into the river!”

He described his encountering a gang of ice cutters on the south Branch, noting that as he approached the operation “the stench caused by the exposure of the water to the atmosphere, upon the removal of the ice-blocks, was overpowering.”

Harvesting ice on Wolf Lake in Indiana (Chicago Daily News Archive)
Then the writer poses the question . . .

“What a compound of villainous substances must it [ice from the river] contain?  And this is the pure crystal ice sold at twenty-five or thirty cents per cwt., which is to cool our lake water for the strictly temperate man, or the champagne, brandy smashes, sherry cobblers, cocktails, slings, and other drinks too numerous to mention, for the use of those who believe in taking ‘a little for the stomach’s sake and their other infirmities.’”

The conclusion of the letter offered a suggestion to dedicate the ice harvested form the river to the Roman goddess Cloacina, who presided over the sewers of ancient Rome rather than touting it as having the “sparkling and bright spirit of purity and cleanliness” that one would expect but that was obviously not delivered.

“Should not our city authorities forbid the vending of such an article as this?  Each year’s addition to our city manufactures, too , must make the matters worse.  Let us look to the purer source for a cooling beverage,” the letter ended. 


Jason_Neises said...

Nice article, Jim! Ice harvesting was a big industry in Dubuque as well. Thought you might find this interesting: http://www.encyclopediadubuque.org/index.php?title=ICE_HARVESTING

Chicago Old and New said...

Thanks Jason. I've got the link . . . Looking forward to reading what it says. Hope the seeds are planted and starting to grow!