Ice Harvesting on for the WFE/FGE fleet


I thought some list members would be interested, beyond the local-interest content, in this news feature about the history of ice harvesting to supply the WFE/FGE reefer fleet on the GN. There are some nice historical photos posted with the story at the link below; I'll past the story text only below the link.

Flathead ice harvest was fruitful endeavor in 1900s

By CANDACE CHASE Daily Inter Lake | Posted: Sunday, December 20, 2009 8:00 am

KALISPELL - Whitefish native Kevin McCready got hooked on the history of the Flathead's coolest crop harvested in the dead of winter.

He remembers as a boy seeing the trucks loaded with ice heading for Great Northern Railway's huge ice houses. McCready was also fascinated by his retired railroader father's stories about hauling the ice harvest back on "the local" from Lake Five in the early 1950s.

"I had that background and I've always been a huge history buff," he said. "The railroad was just such a part of the town I grew up in."

McCready's quest to document the history of the Flathead's ice harvest started about six years ago when he joined the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. Retired from a career in information technology, McCready had the time to research and the skill to digitally store and share his findings.

"I began building a Web site focused on the railroad and its impact on the valley," he said.

About the same time, McCready began cataloging and archiving 120 years of Flathead Valley newspapers as a volunteer for the Museum at Central School. Through articles as well as advertisements, he began to fill in missing details about the railroad's ice house and refrigerator car history.

Oral histories collected by Stumptown Historical Society volunteers provided a fascinating human perspective.

"The deeper I got into it - it kind of whet my appetite to know more," he said.

McCready found the first mention of ice harvesting in 1890 when Henry DuPuy and William Penny put up a stock of ice for their own use. Penny then received a contract to harvest 75 tons for the Cliff House owned by John Clifford, the future mayor of Demersville.

"It was an eating establishment," McCready said. "For those days, it was pretty fancy."

Ice took off as a commodity when the Great Northern Railway arrived in Kalispell. By 1890, two ice houses were constructed in the railroad yard. A third went up in 1900.

"By that time, the demand for fresh fruit was skyrocketing," he said.

When the Great Northern moved its division point to Whitefish in 1904, the railroad built the first of about seven ice houses eventually serving the railroad. The houses held an average of 10,000 tons of ice.

McCready pulled up a photo of a typical commercial ice house on his laptop computer. It showed a large, barnlike structure with several gables and vents in the roof.

"It was a unique structure set up to vent warm air," he said. "The ice cakes were piled up and covered with sawdust for insulation."

Walls had markings to reveal the remaining inventory as demand and warm weather ate into the ice inventory, which was stocked most often in mid-February when ice was prime.

In general, the Great Northern contracted out the cutting to local crews, which provided a winter stimulus to the local economy. McCready said cutting employed up to 100 men for three to four weeks.

"It wasn't unusual to harvest 22 (million) to 30 million pounds - that's a lot of ice," he said. "The last documented ice harvest was about 2,000 tons of ice in 1972."

With unpredictable weather conditions, scheduling ice cutting was an inexact science. Lake ice needed a thickness between 10 and 18 inches with as few air pockets as possible for a slower melt.

"For the most part, in the early days ice was harvested from Little Bitterroot Lake," McCready said. "It was convenient because the first railroad line went by Little Bitterroot Lake."

Over the years, ice for the railroad was also harvested from Lake Five and later from Whitefish Lake. If these lakes didn't freeze, operations moved to Sampson, Lost Coon or Skyles lakes.

At the turn of the century, horse-drawn plows and men with shovels cleared the snow from the lake in preparation for the cutting. The work was cold and dangerous, particularly for the horses.

McCready recalled a story about a harvest in which two teams of horses were used to plow snow up on one end of the lake. For some reason, the teams were then driven up on the snow pile with disastrous results.

The combined weight of snow and horses broke through the ice.

"They lost two teams," he said.

To begin the cutting, crews scored the ice into a grid pattern by driving horses pulling an implement like a plow. A hole was then drilled with an auger large enough to insert a manpowered saw.

"It looked like a crosscut saw," McCready said. "It was a one-handled affair about five feet long."

The crew cut a large raft about 12 by 30 feet to float near shore where they would chop off blocks along a grid line for smaller cakes of 22 by 32 inches weighing 250 to 350 pounds each.

Crew members used poles and gaffs to slide the cakes up on the shore where men or horses pulled them on to railcars, wagons or trucks to haul to the ice houses. Advances such as Jeeps with snowplows, gasoline-powered buzz saws and motor-driven hoists made the ice harvest easier as the decades moved into '50s.

McCready was impressed by a live continuous chain conveyor that Ed McKenzie innovated in 1952 to lift ice cakes from the water up to a loading platform. The ice entrepreneur also gained local fame for another exploit.

"One time Ed was driving a Jeep with a snowplow and went nose-first into a hole but he got out," McCready said. "It was to some extent dangerous work."

The danger didn't end with the harvest and stocking houses.

In his report called "Icing the Cars," McCready quotes a Mr. Rooney, who filled the ice bunkers of cars for Western Fruit Express, a subsidiary formed by Great Northern Railway to handle the complexities of shipping perishable goods.

In the middle of the night with implements called pikes, Rooney tells of manhandling the ice down rickety, narrow gangways from the second floor of an ice house to platforms next to the tops of the refrigerator cars.

He then pushed the ice down to a walkway across the refrigerator cars to load into ice wells on either end of the "refeer" cars.

"The job was dangerous - the blocks were heavy, slippery and hard to control, it was night, the gangways and roofs were covered with crushed ice, and the workers were all young. Dreadful work," Rooney said.

In the heyday of such cars, McCready said crews could ice up to 170 cars at one spotting from the rows of ice houses lined up on by the tracks in Whitefish. Ice from lakes in the Flathead was also shipped to fill Great Northern ice houses from Spokane to Minot, N.D., and beyond.

According to McCready, the railroad searched for ice from more convenient areas but always returned to the Flathead Valley's bounty of ice.

"It was the most reliable and the best quality," he said.

McCready continues his research. The Holy Grail would be photos of the earliest ice cutting on local lakes or any other new information about the Great Northern Railway that may be languishing in an attic or garage.

He has no desire to profit from his years of work and accumulation of information. McCready plans to write a reference paper for the Great Northern Railway Historical Society and to have his research on a public Web site.

"I think history is for sharing," he said.

Join to automatically receive all group messages.