The Frozen Water Trade

by Barb somewhere between Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina as you read this

IcedunderfrontcoverThe fifth Maine Clambake Mystery, Iced Under, debuted this week. In it, I try to fill in some of the blanks in Julia’s mother’s family history.

Pieces of Jacqueline Snowden’s story have been told in each of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. From the previous books, we know she lost her mother young, that she inherited Morrow Island, and that her once-wealthy ancestors build Windsholme, the abandoned mansion on the island. What I’ve never told is how her family made their money and how they lost it.

I’ve known for a while that the Morrows made their money in the frozen-water trade. The idea that New Englanders, in the early part of the nineteenth century, shipped ice halfway around the world has long fascinated to me. In researching the story of the ice trade, I found not one, but two amazing stories.

Frederic Tudor

Frederic Tudor was the originator of the ice trade. As early as 1805 he had the idea that ice cut from ponds in Massachusetts could be shipped to the West Indies for the enjoyment of the colonists there. Literally everyone he knew in Boston thought this was crazy. In the years that followed he experimented with different types of insulation (sawdust turned out to be best) and set about getting exclusive contracts to sell the ice in tropical cities. It took much time, the purchase of ships had to be financed, ice houses had to be built at his destinations. The War of 1812 set back the calendar. He went to debtors prison twice for debts accrued pursuing the venture. However, by 1826 Tudor was at last making a fortune, harvesting ice from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sending it to Cuba, Haiti, New Orleans, Savannah, and Calcutta. Henry David Thoreau awoke one morning to see sixty men and teams of horses cutting ice on Walden Pond. Though he hated the intrusion, Thoreau was taken with the idea that water he had bathed in would end up in India. The frozen water trade was a genius business because ships often came to Boston with coffee and other goods from around the world and left empty, with granite boulders used a ballast. New England had no cash crop and little in the way of natural resources. The ice was free, except for the labor, and it came every year.

the-ice-kingTudor’s family life was somehow even more colorful than his business. At fifty, he married for the first time, a woman thirty years his junior and went on to have six children. We know as much as we do about his business because all his diaries reside at the library at Harvard Business School. After he died at the age of eighty-one, his wife went through the diaries, editorializing. The theme of her complaints was that he was “relentless.” Tudor’s sister had an affair with Joseph Bonaparte, ex-King of Spain, when both lived in New Jersey (because, of course…). His niece was the mother of the Irish Nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell. One of his descendants was one of my favorite New England author/illustrators, Tasha Tudor.

frozen-waterI borrowed a good deal of Frederic Tudor’s history for Jacqueline’s ancestor Frederic Morrow. Two excellent books about Frederic Tudor are The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, by Carl Seaburg and Stanley Patterson (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003), and The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story, by Gavin Weightman (Hyperion, 2003).

The end of the ice trade is as interesting as the beginning and brings us another fascinating character, Charlie Morse of Bath, Maine. By the time Charlie got into the ice business in 1897, it was no longer necessary to ship ice to exotic places. Rural people and immigrants had poured into America’s cities and ice was need to preserve food and cool off from hard, physical work. New York City alone consumed four million pounds of ice a day.

charlie-morseCharlie Morse had rights to cut ice along the Kennebec River in Maine. He had the Tammany connections in New York City to shut out his competitors, leaving their ships unloaded in New York harbor. But he took it too far, jacking up the price so high one summer, the press declared it a war on the poor, and eventually Charlie went to prison. He was a rogue and a speculator, just like Frederic Tudor, and he, too, was called “The Ice King.” He also had a colorful and crazy personal life.

I appropriated some of Charlie’s deeds for Jacqueline’s ancestor William Morrow. If you want to learn more, I recommend Bath, Maine’s Charlie Morse: Ice King & Wall Street Scoundrel, by Philip H. Woods (The History Press, 2011).

The ice trade was eventually done in by modern refrigeration. The age of the Ice Kings had ended, and though great fortunes were made and lost, it had lasted less than one hundred years.

I love stuff like that–those moments in time that seem so important with empires built like they’ll last forever–and then, “poof” they are gone. The stories I wrote about Jacqueline’s ancestors are ultimately fiction, but they are rooted in history. Unfortunately, because it’s a small part of Iced Under, I could barely scratch the surface of this fascinating business and the larger-than-life characters behind it. I hope the book inspires some readers to learn more.



34 Thoughts

  1. Barb, this is fascinating. I was very young when I saw the ice man delivering huge blocks of ice to my great-grandmother’s camp in Billerica, Massachusetts. I remember seeing him stand by his truck and pull a huge block of ice toward himself then up onto his back. He would walk all the way to the back porch and put it into a box lined with galvanized steel. There you would use an ice pick to separate it into large pieces that you would carry to the kitchen and put in the ice box. I know people who still call their refrigerator an ice box.

    1. Steve and I lived for awhile in the Fresh Pond area of Cambridge, Massachusetts very close to the pond you mention here.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Barb. Here in Amesbury Lake Gardner was a big ice source of ice that was also shipped around the world. I’m including bits about it in the fourth Quaker Midwife mystery – set in January! So true that of all the research we do, only snippets get into the books. Congratulations on Iced Under.

  3. It’s a fascinating story. The kind of genious idea I would kick myself for missing. Thanks for sharing part of it through the book and this post.

    1. It’s the kind of thing I would definitely miss. Despite spending a life in start-ups, I’m the person who, when my boss handed me a sample of a product not yet on the market–sticky notes from 3M–I said, “I can’t imagine what a person would do with these.” I always tell people not to take investment advice from me!

  4. What an amazing story! And discovering things like this is what makes doing research for your books so much fun, don’t you think? Looking forward to the book!

  5. I don’t think we got rid of our ice box until I was 10 or 12 years old…I think we probably switched to electricity because they were not delivering ice anymore. Great info, thanks.

  6. Barb, I loved Iced Under and was just fascinated by the underlying historical details of the ice trade. Thanks for pointing to additional resources to read – the bursting of economic bubbles is a persistent feature of life, as new technology overcomes well established markets. In your mystery, you touched on the wide range of impact that the trade had on people – from the entrepreneurs who got rich, to the laborers who worked and died in very hazardous conditions, leaving behind widows and orphans.

    1. Thank you, Vida! The ice harvest was extremely dangerous. As a part of my research, I went to an ice house and saw a video of the huge blocks of ice barreling down the shoot into the ice house. I can’t imagine working inside. And, as I said in the book, teams of horses and men regularly broke through and drowned.

  7. I loved ICED UNDER. It was such a great read and the historical information was fascinating. When is the next book? Hurry hurry. I’m addicted to my Snowden’s!

  8. I loved the historical bits and pieces about the Ice Kings you managed to weave into ICED UNDER and was greatly impressed with your research! It definitely makes me want to read the books you recommended!

  9. I had to re-order (my pre-order copy was stolen), but finally got a copy today! Can’t wait to read this!

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