Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Our Towne Bethlehem March 2019: Ice Out

Ice Out

The business end of a grapple hook
used for harvesting ice. 

Hanging on the wall at the Bethlehem Historical Association’s Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum is an object that reminds me of a jousting lance from the Middle Ages. The wooden handle is about 14 feet long and it is topped with a mean looking pair of spikes, one for pushing and one for pulling. Such grapple hooks were one of the many sharp and spiky tools used to harvest ice. During the winter months, when the ice reached 14 to 16 inches thick, men and horses gathered on the Hudson River to bring in this cold and perishable crop.
Grapple hooks being used on the Hudson River to move ice in the channel towards the ice house.
Photo courtesy of the New York State Archives.

March is the season of “ice out.”  People kept an eye on the rivers for when the ice would finally thaw enough to shake loose and float away downstream. Ice out meant boat traffic with its attendant commerce and travel could resume on the river. Judging by these two newspaper notes, ice out could be a loud affair. “The ice went out of the river in a remarkably quiet and orderly manner.” (Coeymans News Herald, March 30, 1886.) “Cedar Hill: The ice went quietly out of the river last Friday. Navigation is now open from Troy to New York.” (Altamont Enterprise, April 6, 1900.)

Freezing and thawing also meant ice jams, and ice jams could mean flooding. Several of the photos here illustrate one way that was used to manage ice jams: blowing them up to get the ice and water moving. These photos are part of a montage that appeared in the March 9, 1912 issue of the Albany Evening Journal under the headline “Experts dynamiting the ice at New Baltimore, hoping to prevent spring freshet.”

Newspapers often reported on the spring “freshet” when heavy rain or snow melt created a rush of fresh water in the river. Combine a freshet, whose excess water could lead to flooding all by itself, with a packed-up ice jam, and the river’s shores could experience catastrophic flooding.

The May 5, 1893 Troy Daily Times certainly went for drama in its headlines about flooding caused by heavy rains and snow melt. May in a Rage. A Remarkable Freshet. Elemental Extravagance. An Endangered Fleet. The article noted that the water level was two inches below the spring freshet when the ice went out, and that it was still rising. It detailed the damage the flooding caused so far including flooded streets, basements and backyards. Various barges and boats were pulled from their moorings and “sent swirling downstream.” Even railroad service was interrupted. Locally, a bridge carrying the West Shore Railroad over a creek in South Bethlehem was swept away by the rising water.

While we rarely use the word freshet or blow up ice jams anymore, we are still experiencing them. Just this past January, a warm spell loosened the ice on the Hudson River. The ice rushed along and knocked at least 8 boats and barges free to swirl downstream. You can search the internet for dramatic photos of the Captain J.P., usually docked at Troy, wedged against the railroad bridge near the Corning Preserve in Albany. The power of Hudson River ice and flood water continues to be felt today here in Bethlehem and beyond.

Below is the photo series that illustrates ice jam removal in March 1912.

William Welch of Van Wies Point, the “blaster in charge,” gets the explosive charge ready.

Out on the ice, the dynamite is towed into position. Note the large ice warehouse in the background.

Welch sets the fuse in anticipation of the explosion that will loosen the ice jam.

The explosion.

My latest can be found here.


No comments:

Post a Comment