History Spotlight: Harvesting Ice on the Kennebec

In celebration of KELT’s 30th Anniversary, we are sharing historical snippets and stories. Our spotlights will highlight moments in local environmental history to show how far we have come conserving, restoring, and appreciating the lands and waters of the Kennebec Estuary region.

 
Cutting ice on the Kennebec River in Bowdoinham, ME circa 1895 .    Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Cutting ice on the Kennebec River in Bowdoinham, ME circa 1895. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Ice harvesting on the Kennebec, 1910 .  Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Ice harvesting on the Kennebec, 1910. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

 

Harvesting Ice on the Kennebec

As we resolvedly push through this winter’s chilly wind, sleet, and snow with the same determination that our ancestors did, looking back at the history of the Kennebec reminds us that not only did winter have quite an impact on our state, but Mainers found a very effective way to commodify it! The business of ice cutting and harvesting was a booming one, providing a lot of jobs, and food storage in the warmer months for seasonal climates. In fact, according to Maine History Online, the worth of Maine’s ice business at its peak in the late 1880s and 90s was more than California’s gold production. Ice was also shipped by boat to year-round warm climates, and was so well insulated with sawdust, peat, and well-made containers that hardly any of the ice would melt by the time of its arrival.

Charles W. Morse, the Bath native and Bowdoin graduate who gifted the original Morse High School building, was an ice magnate worth $60 million in 1899. This earned the businessman the nickname, “The Ice King”. The heyday of the ice business ended in the 1920s, soon after its peak, with the onset of refrigeration and rising temperatures affecting the annual ice production. This shows both the ups and downs of business reliant on natural resources. Protecting these resources, whether they come from the land or water, is at the core of KELT’s mission the past 30 years. We can take the hardworking spirit of the ice harvesters as a reminder of Maine’s past, and as inspiration for the future!

 

Have a cool photo from years past of the estuary, Merrymeeting Bay, or surrounding lands? Want to share with us a story from the past?

Share photos, maps, stories, etc. with Becky at bkolak@kennebecestuary.org or call 207-442-8400.

Becky Kolak