Housatonic River Ice

(Originally written in February 2004 by Robert Novak Jr. for the weekly newspaper Huntington Herald).

            An “old-fashioned New England winter” had given way to a much-anticipated thaw at the end of January 1879. By February 2, winter had returned. The weekly local newspaper Derby Transcript reported that the day “was perhaps the bleakest day we have had for weeks...beginning in a storm and ending with a biting arctic wind”. By February 4, the weather had turned, and bluebirds had been sighted singing in nearby trees.

            But perhaps one of the most interesting passages from that 125-year-old newspaper was a single sentence, reading, “There was lively trotting on the dam, Saturday”. What the paper was saying was that people were riding their horses for sport on the thick ice above the Ousatonic Dam, between Derby and Shelton.

            While this may seem incredulous today, riding, and even racing horses upon the Housatonic River above the dam was actually quite commonplace in the late 19th century, which is why it was barely noted by the Transcript. Seventy-five years later, horses on the Housatonic River were mostly forgotten by all but a few, until the daily local newspaper Evening Sentinel ran an article on January 5, 1954, entitled “Old Time Winters on the Housatonic”, which began in part by saying “there is a whole generation of young people who have never seen the Housatonic above Derby frozen solid, bank to bank, with ice nine inches thick. Stories of horses, drawing cutter sleighs, racing up and down the solid surface of the stream seem fantastic to them”.

            Horses, of course, were the only real means of transportation on local roads back then, other than walking or the occasional train or trolley. Just as we have different cars and trucks that perform different tasks today, there were horses bred for different purposes in those days. Draft horses, which were very common, were for pulling heavy loads, while lighter horses might be employed for carriages and general riding.

            Physicians often bought the swiftest of the horses, which were very expensive,, since most of their practice was composed of house calls. It was pride in their horses that lead the physicians of Derby and Shelton to take the lead in the ice racing above the dam. They were not the only ones in the Valley with swift horses, of course, but the Sentinel noted that they were always very well represented. And there was always quite a crowd of ice skaters, braving the bitter wind that would howl down the river, on their homemade or store-bought skates, for an audience. Most of the races were on Sundays, the universal Day of Rest back then, when the crowds were highest.

            The horses were equipped with caulks on their horseshoes to give them firm footing. Sometimes they drew sulkies or sleighs. In a follow-up to the 1954 Sentinel article, elderly Derby resident John Fayden would recall two days later “In one of those years I remember when there was a horse race on the ice. I think one of the ponies was owned by McDermott of Orange and I think the other horse may have been owned by someone with the name of Donovan from Shelton. I remember the thrill of seeing those horses coming down the river on the ice. The starting place must have been just above the Recreation Camp (still on Roosevelt Drive in Derby), and the finish line must have been (just above the Yale Boathouse)”.

            The ice was used for more than just skating and racing. Local ice companies, such as the Derby-Ansonia Ice Company, and later the Huntington Ice Company, would harvest the ice, cutting it into blocks, and pushing it with long poles down a narrow channel into a nearby ice house. The ice blocks, weighing over 200 pounds, would be packed in straw and stored in the nearby icehouses.

When the warm weather came, and the Housatonic ice was but a pleasant memory, the enclosed ice wagons would lumber down Valley streets, pulled by the heavy draft horses that would never even be considered to race on the Housatonic River. Regular customers would indicate if they needed ice by placing special cards in a window. The Sentinel recalled young children would often follow, hitching rides on the scales on the back of the wagons, and snatching whatever scraps of ice would fall to the ground on hot summer days.

The icemen, who were by necessity usually large, muscular men, would cut a smaller block of ice from the larger one, and carry it with a big set of tongs to the family icebox. Bare in mind there were four story high apartments buildings in the area back then, with no elevators! Usually this would occur on weekdays, when husbands were at work and children were at school, so the iceman would have no help.

Reaching the icebox, the block would be dropped into the top compartment. The iceman would keep trimmers handy in case the block was too big. Once in place, the ice would provide refrigeration, until it melted, and once again the card would be placed in the window to catch the iceman’s attention.

Not every winter was as cold as 1879 or 2004, of course, and there were winters where there would be little or no ice harvest at all. When that occurred, the ice companies would send crews up the Housatonic, to Stockbridge in Massachusetts or even higher, to harvest ice upstream. Sending the crews and bringing the ice down to Derby was a costly proposition, and the expense was passed on to the customers. Just as gas prices rise and fall based on world events today, local residents knew a mild winter would lead to high ice prices in the summer.