The Business of Frozen Water

The American Ice Industry

and the Ice Trust Scandal of 1900

In this modern era of frozen dinners and refrigerated milk, it is hard to imagine life without the convenience of a refrigerator. Yet until the late 1940s, an electric fridge was a luxury few people could afford. The good old alternative was the Icebox, a “wooden cabinet lined with zinc or slate and insulated with charcoal.”[ii] Once a day, an “ice man” would arrive with a wagonload of ice. Fetching the amount specified on colorful numbered signs in each house window, he would trudge into the house and place the ice into the family cooler (sometimes there was a special exterior door to access the ice box, much like a mailbox today).  The ice man, just like a milkman or newspaper deliverer, was a neighborhood fixture.[iii] The rapid adoption of the fridge has led us to forget about the critical importance of ice, and of the ice trade, in American history. Ice was a matter of life or death on hot days in big cities when milk and meat spoiled quickly, and the power of ice harvesting, distribution, and manufacturing corporations was enormous, affecting city and state politics, producing “Ice King” millionaires, and even creating lasting American traditions—the idea of putting ice in drinks was made possible only by unpolluted ice sources in the US, and the year-round supply of ice to sweltering American cities from Bostonian ports allowed for the consumption of ice cream in the summertime.[iv]

            Though some ice had been taken from ponds and rivers for years, only in the 19th century did it become an organized industry. The man behind the growth of the trade was Frederic Tudor, also known as the “Ice King.” Born into a well-off family, Tudor had enjoyed an abundance of ice in his family home in Boston, where ice was harvested each winter from a local pond and stored in a special Icehouse (something only rich families could afford) throughout the warm months.[v] After a trip to Cuba, Tudor realized how profitable an ice trade with the West Indies might be. Indeed, in his mind, it was a way to save the New England economy. New England had few of its own natural resources, and exporting ice on cargo ships would boost the economy. It would also help with one of Boston Harbor’s biggest problems: ships arrived full, but left practically empty. Since ships were designed to sail with full holds, Bostonians had to dredge stones from the bottom of the bay to add ballast. What if, thought Frederic Tudor, the local export could be ice? It would hit two birds with one stone.[vi] In February of 1806, despite much ridicule from Boston merchants, Tudor loaded a ship with 130 tons of ice from his Boston pond and set off for the Caribbean island of Martinique. After selling fifty dollars’ worth of ice in two days, Tudor’s business became slow, and he resorted to making and selling ice cream, a delicacy none of the islanders had ever tasted.[vii] He did not make nearly as much money as he needed (he had hoped for $10,000), but Tudor did not give up; he would dedicate the rest of his life to the ice trade. As he acquired better harvesting and insulation techniques, his business expanded, delivering ice and building icehouses in Charleston, New Orleans, Havana, and even Calcutta, where the British population was so thrilled to have the cold luxury that a grand stone palace was built to serve as an icehouse.[viii]

            By the 1880s, Tudor’s little idea had become a major industry. An 1880 census indicated that eight million tons of ice were being harvested annually, while train cars loaded with ice expanded markets for meat and produce, allowing fruit from California to make the long trek eastward.[ix] Ice companies grew to become like today’s oil corporations, constantly prospecting for new, clean and accessible sources of ice.[x] Artificial ice manufacturing remained expensive and difficult into the early 1900s, so the competition for natural sources of ice set the stage for epic rivalries; in 1900 in Milwaukee, a battle erupted between two companies. The mostly Polish Wisconsin Lakes ice company, which harvested its ice from the Milwaukee river, found that its source of ice was becoming polluted, and sought to strangle its competitor, the mostly German Pike company, which harvested its ice from cleaner lakes. It conveniently bought up the land between Pike’s icehouses and the railroad, making Pike’s enterprise impossible. In retaliation, the Pike company decided to organize winter “river excursions,” during which tourists were taken out on a steamboat outfitted as an ice breaker while a German band played music. These trips effectively smashed the entire Milwaukee river ice supply, rendering the Wisconsin Lakes Company’s harvest impossible.[xi] As more such rivalries developed, mergers and consolidations became inevitable for companies aiming to grow and ensure a steady stream of ice and profit.

By far the greatest market for ice was the rapidly expanding metropolis of New York, where, according to a 1906 New York Times article, 4,000,000 tons were being consumed every year.[xii] The 135 giant icehouses along the Hudson were not enough to supply the city—tons more were imported from Maine, where the cold weather was more reliable.[xiii] Indeed, it was during a freakishly warm winter (meaning less ice production in New York, so Maine stepped up its exports) and an unseasonably cool summer (meaning less demand, so ice lay idle) in 1891 that Charles S. Morse, a young man whose family owned several ice barges, took advantage of the slump and bought up several ice harvesters and distributors, creating a Consolidated Ice Company. He then proceeded to buy up enough New York companies to give him a monopoly in the nation’s largest ice market. He thus became a second Ice King, at the helm of the $60 million American Ice Company.[xiv]

In the spring of 1900, Morse brought his great power into play. That May, a New York Times headline announced: “ONE HUNDRED PER CENT. RISE IN ICE; Hew York's Big Trust Limits Harvest and Controls Distribution. MAY BE FURTHER ADVANCE. Big Dividends and Market Manipulation the Cause. OLD PRICE WARRANTED. American Company, However, Has a Monopoly and Squeezes Rich and Poor Alike.” Morse claimed that the higher prices were due to increased competition and an ice shortage that year, though the newspaper was quick to point out that in reality, his American Ice Company, which had no competition at all, simply chose not to harvest what was a decent crop because the company wanted to “increase dividends” by artificially inflating the price.[xv] New Yorkers were outraged, not only because ice was now 60 instead of 30 cents a pound (which was, according to the New York World, the highest price in the nation) but also because the company announced it was discontinuing the “five-cent cakes” that the poor of the city relied on.  The incident soon became known throughout the country; the Boston Transcript likened the price hike to “a tax on bread and water and air” while the Philadelphia Ledger called it a “veritable crime against humanity.”[xvi] Perhaps the most surprising thing for most New Yorkers was the stranglehold of American Ice over the city, which, it had seemed to them, had had several competing ice companies. The press quickly began to investigate how one company had managed to take such complete control. It soon became clear that Morse had bought up ice companies and then pretended that they were still his rivals to maintain the illusion of competition. Apparently, he had also bought and then closed down ice manufacturing companies to prevent the new coal-driven artificial ice machines from challenging his business. Even more suspicious were the actions of the New York Dock Department, which had quietly refused American’s real rivals access to dock space, which was crucial for any company that wanted to unload and sell its ice in the city. The Dock Department had also gone so far as to destroy bridges and buildings belonging to American Ice’s rivals, claiming that they were unsafe.[xvii] The Mazet Committee, a special delegation sent the previous year by the state to investigate the actions of Tammany Hall, the political machine that pulled the strings of New York politicians, had, in an interview, discovered that Richard Croker, New York’s slippery political boss, had once held stock in Morse’s company, but evidence of corruption was inconclusive.[xviii] In a May 4, 1900 article, the New York Times pointed suspiciously to Mayor Van Wyck’s trip to Maine with Morse and reprinted the interview, causing further uproar.[xix]

It seemed inevitable that the truth would be uncovered, and it finally was when the New York Journal received the record books of American Ice from an anonymous source. It was soon revealed that over thirty New York officials had been given stock in Morse’s company.[xx] Mayor Van Wyck, who earned $15,000 a year and yet somehow had $680,000 worth of stocks, tried to defend his innocence, claiming he had borrowed money to pay for the stock, but New Yorkers would have none of it.[xxi] “Where did you get it, Mr. Mayor? These questions will not down, Mr. Mayor. The honest Tammany voters are asking them,” cried the New York World.[xxii] In the face of these discoveries, American Ice was forced to reduce its price to 40 cents a pound, citing “sharp competition,” which, of course, was yet another lie.[xxiii] Morse, meanwhile, conveniently left American Ice, taking along with him a sizeable chunk of money.[xxiv] Tammany Hall broke down as it became clear that its leaders had stabbed the poor of the city, their most important voter base, in the back, and the Democrats fell from power, losing badly in the municipal elections of 1901.[xxv]

The Ice Trust scandal played a big role in the politics of the era, becoming a catalyst for Progressive reform. The year of the incident also saw a heated Presidential race between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican incumbent William McKinley and his new sidekick, the young Theodore Roosevelt. In October of 1900, Roosevelt, then governor of New York, received a letter from Donald M. Dickinson, a Michigan lawyer, who had read Bryan’s speech in the newspapers: “There is a Republican Governor and a Republican Legislature in New York, and what have they done to throttle the Ice Trust? Answer me that. But then you know the Republican Governor of New York has not time to bother with the Ice Trust, for he is too busy out here telling you about it.” Dickinson asked Roosevelt to counter this allegation. Roosevelt, in his reply, accused Bryan of hypocrisy: “The striking point is that among the heaviest of these investors [in the ice trust] appear the Tammany Bryanite leaders, who in conjunction with Mr. Bryan, are the loudest in denouncing trusts.” Roosevelt went on to call the Ice Trust “certainly one that can be said to be a bad trust.” This classification supposedly compelled Roosevelt to support antitrust legislation. The only problem, as he explained, was that Croker and other major stockholders were fighting against it on every little detail.[xxvi] In a way, it became a perfect situation for Roosevelt: he had to do nothing—he could claim to be throttling the Ice Trust but blame the Democrats for the ineffectiveness of his policies.

Though Roosevelt certainly said more than he did both in this case and in his national politics, he set the precedent for a more active, interventionist government (which Taft fulfilled much more broadly than his predecessor). And even if the antitrust legislation turned out to be a flop, it was an important ideological precedent; the June 1900 Outlook summed up this progress: “if the new anti-trust law be constitutional, the ice trust may be dissolved and its property returned to the original firms and corporations which entered it. Such a decision by the New York courts, following the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Illinois that the Associated Press had violated the law in attempting to prevent its patrons from buying news of its competitors, would create a new respect for anti-trust legislation, at present deemed by many impracticable.”[xxvii] In this regard, the ice trust scandal helped usher in the Progressive Era, along with what the Outlook called a “new respect” for a larger, more active government and louder criticism of powerful corporations.

Gustavus Myers, a famous muckraker, exaggerated the Progressive interpretation of the Ice Trust Scandal to an extreme. Ten years after the incident, Myers published a multi-volume book entitled History of the Great American Fortunes, a scathing exposé of the methods used to attain great wealth. After a short description of the case under the title of “How the Little Magnates Get their Millions,” he moved on to a more critical subtitle: “Millions from Suffering, Disease, and Death.” He pointed out that the result of the Ice Trust’s action was “a noticeably great increase in the rate of mortality among the children of the poor. Large numbers of families, living on the most precarious edge of destitution, could not afford to pay the extra five cents demanded for a piece of ice. The milk soured and acted like poison on the children.” In other words, Myers accused the Ice Trust of nothing less than murder on a grand scale. Interestingly, though, Myers chose not to dwell too long on the ice trust per se, and instead boldly announced that “neither were the methods any different from those of capitalism in every field.” At this point, Myers’ little piece on Morse became, much more broadly, a critique of capitalist society, claiming that “the invariable principle upon which capitalists acted, and by which they tremendously augmented their profits, was to sell necessities at the very highest price when the people needed them most… While giving his bits of donations for the founding of hospitals, the successful capitalist reaped his millions from conditions productive of vast suffering and disease on every hand.” By calling this principle “invariable” and presenting it in this way, Myers implied that “suffering and disease” are impossible to separate from a capitalist system. As much as millionaires try to improve their image by donating to charity, it must not be forgotten that their money is earned through the toil and pain of the same people they claim to help through their donations. With every word, Myers’ little exposé seems to become more and more Socialist; he goes on to critique the “fine men and women of elegant society” who buy the stock of the corporation that does “murder on a great scale.”[xxviii] Indeed, Myers does do a great job of spinning the story of the Ice Trust scandal into a seething critique of capitalism and high society, and readers are ready to believe him.

The author of a July 1914 New York Times article, however, was not as convinced: “Mr. Myers’ books are recommended only to admirers of the muck-raking school… His facts are not denied, but his inferences from them will not be admitted generally.  All he says may be true, and yet there are other offsetting facts which compensate for the blemishes disclosed.”[xxix] A closer look at the work of Myers, who wrote many books about rich Americans and was a loud opponent of the exploitative upper class, reveals that he was able to draw this inference from just about every example of corporate greed. Was Myers presenting the true facts but making dubious inferences? Myers is much too quick to generalize—his rallying cry is that the rich capitalist millionaires get their money through murder on a huge scale. What he does not mention is that the government officials—the New York police, Dock Department workers, judges, and mayor bribed by Morse—may truly be the ones responsible. A large ice magnate may not care about the lives and health of his customers (and why should he?) but the government should be the one to care, and to protect its constituents. That is the point Myers misses when he broadens his piece into the criticism of a larger system. While Myers certainly illustrates the evils of the rich quite well, it seems to bother him much less that elected officials are stabbing their constituents in the back. Though it can be argued that government sellouts to big business are natural byproducts of a Capitalist system, Myers does not even make that point. Indeed, he ignores it because his one-sided story’s villains are the rich. But these are important questions to ask: Why is it that Roosevelt’s interests were best served by doing nothing about the Ice Trust? Why did one corporation have such power over a vital resource, be it rail transportation, oil, or ice? These are questions that the Ice Trust scandal prompted and Progressive reformers (ironically, Roosevelt among them) tried to answer and act on.

[i] Image: <>

[ii] Karal Marling, Ice: Great Moments in the History of Hard, Cold Water, (St. Paul, MN: Borealis Books, 2008), 84.

[iii] Marling, 84.

[iv] Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story, (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 7.

[v] Weightman, 15.

[vi] Weightman, 49.

[vii] Weightman, 39.

[viii] Weightman, 142.

[ix] Weightman, 9, 221.

[x] Weightman, 225.

[xi] Weightman, 233-34.

[xii] ICE FAMINE THREATENS UNLESS COLD SETS IN," New York Times, 2 February 1906, p. 8.

[xiii] Weightman, 9.

[xiv] Weightman, 237.

[xv] Oliver Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall, (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 201.

   “ONE HUNDRED PER CENT. RISE IN ICE,” New York Times, 6 May 1900, p. 18.

[xvi]  “The Ice Trust in New York,” The Literary Digest, 19 May 1900, p. 594.

[xvii] Weightman, 239.

[xviii] Allen, 199.

[xix] “TAMMANY HALL AND ICE TRUST AFFAIRS,” New York Times, 4 May 1900, p. 7.

[xx] Weightman, 239.

[xxi]  Mike Dash, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century, (New York: Random House, 2007), 24.

[xxii]  “The Ice Trust Disclosures,” Public Opinion, 21 June 1900, p. 774.

[xxiii]  Allen, 201.

[xxiv] Weightman, 239.

[xxv]  Allen, 202.

     Dash, 24.

[xxvi]  Theodore Roosevelt, Campaigns and Controversies, (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005), 390-92.

[xxvii]  “New York’s Ice Trust,” The Outlook, 9 June 1900, p. 328.

[xxviii] Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes, Volume II, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1911), 291-95.

[xxix] “CANADIAN WEALTH,” New York Times, 5 July 1914, p. BR301.