Maine River Ice Was Worth How Much!?

A Maine Maritime Museum exhibit reviews the state's frozen assets.

The Frozen Kingdom
Courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum.
By Emmeline Willey

At the turn of the 20th century, Maine’s ice industry was worth, in present-day value, nearly a billion dollars. Long, cold winters had earned the state’s rivers a reputation for the thickest, cleanest ice money could buy. Up and down the East Coast, shipping companies relied on that ice for storing produce, butchers for keeping meats from spoiling, and households for chilling ice boxes.

Harvesting required crews to cut into the ice with saws, some mechanized, others dragged by horses outfitted with studded shoes. Then, they stashed blocks in riverside warehouses, which were often the largest structures around and thus susceptible to lightning strikes. Occasionally, a warehouse burned and left towering stacks of ice standing in an open field.

The Frozen Kingdom, a Maine Maritime Museum exhibit, spans a period between 1870 and 1910, from ice’s boom to its bust. Old tools and photos give a feel for the work, and personal letters offer glimpses into the dealings of industry titans. 

Chief curator Chris Timm found Charles Morse, of Bath, to be a particularly colorful character. After folding several concerns into the American Ice Company, Morse monopolized supply to New York City, where he became known as “the Ice King.” Morse also took controlling interests in a number of banks, and his transactions drew the ire of a U.S. district attorney. In prison, he faked illness by drinking a chemical concoction, winning sympathy and a pardon from President Taft. Afterward, he skittered off to Europe for a spell.

But corporate misconduct isn’t what ultimately crushed the ice industry. With the advent of mechanical refrigeration, demand for Maine ice melted away, although a few reels of silent film have survived to show hulking ice-stacking machinery in action at river’s edge. “It’s one thing to describe,” Timm says, “but it’s a whole other thing to watch.” 

Through April 26. 243 Washington St., Bath. 207-443-1316.