Cutting Ice On the Bay Image courtesy of Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library

By Brian Roulston

Hamilton Bay has played an essential part in Hamilton’s economic and recreational wellbeing since the 1700s, mainly in the moving of goods and people during the spring, summer and fall when ice was not a problem. Shortly after the first world war, when the bay was frozen over, planes were fitted with skies and would take off and land at Elliot Airport, located where Stelco sits today. People would take to the ice to ice-skate, ice fish or zip across the frozen bay up to 60 km/h while wind sailing.

From the 1800s through the 1920s, nearly every community of any size in the U.S and Canada near freshwater harvested ice, this included Hamilton Bay. Ice was stored and used during the summer months for refrigeration and cooling. It was the first harvest of the year. For many, a chance to make extra money to tie them over until spring. The annual ice harvest took place from mid-January through February, when the ice would be 40 cm thick or more, usually the coldest part of the winter. A workforce of up to 600 men would grab their ice saws, picks, tongs, and head out onto the frozen bay.

Ice season was short, intense with long hours and was not without its dangers. The men would work between 10 and 12-hours days, often starting at 4:00 am. They worked seven days a week, until either the icehouses were full or when the ice became unsafe. Sometimes during the ice harvest, someone would accidentally slip into the cold waters of the bay. They’d be pulled out and rushed into a shed where a stove or fireplace was kept going and given dry clothes along with some hot liquids. While there have been some fatalities, this got them back on their feet again so they could rejoin the harvest. Usually, after that experience, they tended to be a little more careful not to repeat that ordeal. Horses fell in too. When that happened, everyone would drop everything and come to the rescue. Once the horse was out of danger, the animal was blanketed, then exercised without any lasting effects.

Hamilton’s North End, from Wood towards Bay Street, was an ideal location for ice harvests because of its lack of trees at the time, which in the summer created humidity. Dampness was the greatest enemy of ice keeping; these houses were built where there was adequate air circulation. The low rise from the bay to the beach made it easier to haul the ice crop to the icehouses. Blocks of ice measuring a half meter long by three-quarters of a meter wide and a quarter meter deep would either be pulled by horse or placed on a conveyer belt that stretched from the bay to the icehouse.
Before building an icehouse, the sand would be spread out in a thick layer over the ground first. They are constructed mainly of brick or wooden planks with several rooms or compartments measuring 9 metres x 12 metres and 9 metres high. Each room had double walls filled with either tree bark, straw, sawdust, charcoal or wooden shavings. Straw would be spread out over a wooden floor. Straw was also stuffed between each block of ice, making them easier to separate later on.  When done, there was almost a meter (3 feet) of insulation surrounding the harvested blocks. The best-built icehouses would lose anywhere between 10 and 30% of the ice that was stored.

The weather could make or break a harvest by not being cold enough for long enough for the ice to reach optimum thickness for harvesting. A sudden thaw, windstorm or rainstorm could kill an ice harvest quickly.

In Hamilton, names such as Dewey & O’hare or W.B Foyster adorned the sides of these icehouses. In some communities the ice houses were owned by the railroads. Blocks of ice were either purchased at the icehouse or delivered by horse.

Farmers would often build smaller icehouses and harvest ice from their frozen ponds or streams.

Once modern refrigeration such as fridges or air conditioning became mainstream, or the bay and other waterways became polluted, ice harvesting came to an end. The last recorded ice harvest on Hamilton Bay took place in 1926