OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with The Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
May 18, 1963
In today’s modern world, frequent visitors to the typical Canadian household are FedEx or UPS deliverers dropping off the latest purchases from Amazon or other virtual retailers.
Back in our grandparents’ day, the typical household also received lots of commercial visitors -- the postman, the milkman, the Fuller brush man, and the occasional telegram delivery boy. But no visitor was more welcome during the hot summer months than the burly iceman with his frosty block of ice, grasped between large metal tongs, destined for the family icebox.
In the years before air-conditioning, the only way to mitigate those sweltering, sticky days of July and August was to indulge in your favourite chilled drink or ice cream. And for that, ice was essential. Through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the most common form of ice in Canada and the United States was natural ice "harvested" from lakes and rivers during the depth of winter and stored in "ice houses" for the summer sales season.
A huge industry developed around cutting, storing and delivering ice. It even went international, with ice cut in the Boston and New York areas sent by speedy clipper ships to the islands in the West Indies.
When ice "harvesting" began in Ottawa is uncertain. Certainly, ice was available in the summer of 1847. In late May 1847, Thompson & Smillie’s, confectioners in Lower Bytown, advertised ice cream for sale in The Packet newspaper. Where there’s ice cream, there has to be ice.
By the 1880s, ice harvesting on the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers was big business, employing hundreds of people.
The ice industry provided welcome jobs during the winter when the lumber mills were closed and employment hard to find. The largest Ottawa ice dealers at the time were Jos. Christin & Company, Charlebois & Eros, and Moise Lapointe.
Tens of thousands of tons of ice was harvested annually above the Chaudière Falls close to the Prince of Wales Bridge and below the Falls near Nepean Point. Ice was also cut on the Rideau River in Mooney’s Bay.
The ice-harvesting process was straightforward, with the season lasting for five to ten weeks. When the ice was thick enough, roughly 18 inches, a depth typically reached by late January or early February, teams of men would clear the snow using horse-drawn scrapers. A straight line was then drawn across the newly cleared ice field. Two sharp blades, 44 inches apart, scored parallel furrows into the ice. These grooves were used as guides for the ice sawyers who cut out a column of ice. They then cut the ice perpendicular to these grooves to make large blocks called "cakes." Using ice clamps, strong men hoisted these mega ice cubes out of the water which were then loaded onto horse-drawn sleighs for delivery to Ottawa’s ice houses for storage. There, the blocks were placed in tiers, one upon the other, separated by a few inches to stop them freezing into one huge block. Bark or sawdust was often used to provide insulation.
While more than half of the ice might be lost through melting, there was usually sufficient remaining to meet the demand for ice during the hot summer months.
Prices were affordable. In 1866, T. Starmer, located at 126 Rideau Street opposite Matthew’s Hotel, advertised that he would deliver 10 pounds of ice daily, with a double amount on Saturdays for Sunday use, through the season (May 1 to October 1) for a fee of $5. The same price was being charged thirty years later by the Ottawa Ice Company. Discounts were provided if one paid in advance and bought larger quantities of ice.
If a household had its own ice house, the cost of a season’s worth of ice was even cheaper. The Citizen reported that a man satisfied his home’s need for summer ice for only $4. The man purchased his ice from a dealer in the winter, and stored it in his personal ice house which was tucked away under the shade of a big tree in his backyard.
Owing to pollution concerns, the Ottawa Board of Health passed regulations in the early 1890s to restrict the harvest of ice on the Ottawa River to above the Chaudière Falls.
Despite this, dealers persisted in cutting ice lower down the river. Apparently, they could save $1,000 to $1,300 per year by cutting below the Falls. After one ice dealer received a summons for cutting ice on the Ottawa River to the east of Earnscliffe, then the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, and now the residence of the British High Commissioner, dealers appealed to City Council for a relaxation of the regulations.
These appeals were resisted by Dr Robillard, the head of the Ottawa Board of Health, even though an analysis of ice samples taken from the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers proved to be satisfactory. He thought that a one-off sampling was insufficient to ensure safety, pointing out that Ottawa’s sewers discharged on the Ontario side while the "washings of Hull and of the pulp industry" poured into the river from the Quebec side.
With fears of cholera returning with the warm weather, City Council resisted the ice dealers’ appeals.
In 1912, the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company began operations on Nicholas Street. The company used liquid ammonia as the cooling agent for making its ice, a process that had become economically feasible during the late nineteenth century. Instead of using potentially unsanitary river water, it drew its water supply from artisan wells almost 500 feet deep. The water was also tested daily. The company claimed that its ice was seldom touched by hands. While it advertised that it could make 50 tons of artificial ice per day, the company could only satisfy a small portion of Ottawa’s ice needs. Natural ice remained in strong demand.
In 1927, thirteen of the largest ice dealers in Ottawa and Hull, including the Artificial Ice Company, banded together to form the Icemen’s Association, and incidentally to raise prices. From then on, no allowance would be made for summer vacations. Previously, customers could suspend their ice service when they were away on holiday, and receive a credit for that time from ice companies. More significantly, apartment dwellers were henceforth charged a steep delivery premium of 50 cents per month per flight of stairs that the iceman had to climb carrying his load of ice.
For some, this charge effectively doubled the price of ice.
For the next thirty years, ice harvesting continued to be an annual winter event on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers.
The process remained little changed from that of the previous century. Horses continued to be used to remove snow and slush from the ice field and to scrape the surface. However, power saws with 24-inch diameter blades were used to cut the ice, though men still used long, cross-cut saws to finish the cuts. After breaking off each 300-pound block of ice with crowbars, men guided the blocks using sharp pikes down a water channel to the landing machine -- essentially a gas-powered, toothed conveyor belt that hoisted the blocks onto the back of a truck for delivery to the ice houses. On arrival, ice packers stacked the blocks which were insulated with sawdust. The Department of Health and Welfare kept a close check on ice quality to ensure that the ice was safe for human consumption.
After the war, demand for ice remained strong for a time, notwithstanding the gradual introduction of electric refrigerators into Ottawa kitchens. Old-fashioned ice boxes remained in service.
In early 1950, Ottawa ice dealers said the demand was as strong as it had been ten or fifteen years earlier, and planned to store 300,000 tons of natural ice during the 1950 ice season.
However, within just a few years, the Ottawa ice industry had gone the way of the buggy whip, a casualty of technological change.
In 1959, it was reported that no company was cutting natural ice from either the Ottawa or Rideau Rivers. The last advertisement for natural ice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on May 18, 1963 in the classified ad section. Two thousand large blocks of natural ice were available if one called 684-5237. The name and the address of the seller, and where the ice was sourced, were not revealed.
Even the artificial ice producers had difficulty in competing with the modern refrigerator. The building of the Ottawa Artificial Ice Company on Nicholas Street was purchased in 1962 by the University of Ottawa which wanted the land for new university buildings. The company was officially closed in 1967.
After that, only the old, now vacant, ice houses were left to remind Ottawa residents of the once-great ice industry. And they too succumbed one by one. Typically made of wood and filled with old sawdust, many ice houses were destroyed by fire. Others were torn down. A few smaller ones found new life as cottages or offices.
Today, several companies supply ice to Ottawa. One of the largest is the Arctic Glacier Company of Winnipeg which has a production facility on the Hawthorne Road in Ottawa. Its bags of packaged ice can be purchased at service stations and grocery stores throughout the city. Big 300 lbs blocks are also still available, as is ice for commercial purposes.