Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 25 - Wenham Lake Ice

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    IF, in the mid summer, when everything was still with heat, and the cattle and the sheep crowded under the great trees for shade, and the house-dog lay panting, with his tongue hanging from his mouth, a little child were to come to us and beg for a. cup of water, what would it think if we were to tell it this tale? —
    A very long way off, in the New World, there is a great cup, hundreds of feet deep, made in the mountains. This cup is always full of crystal water, which in the winter season gets so cold that great ships come and carry it all over the world, so that every person, when he is heated as you are, can, if he likes, have a draught of its delicious icy contents.
    In all probability the child would think we were telling it some tale of Fairyland, and would not dream that we were speaking of an everyday working fact. Yet such is the case: the crystal cup is the Wenham Lake, held in a hollow of the mountains in New Hampshire, Massachusetts. This lake, which is of small extent, having only an area of 500 acres, is supplied by springs which issue from its rocky bottom; its waters are so pure that analysis cannot detect any foreign elements held either in suspension or in combination.
    [-244 -] This condition of purity is not alone, however, the cause of the celebrity which the ice formed from it has of late years attained throughout the world, and especially in England: there are many such lakes in America capable of producing equally good ice, and which are indeed used as the ice farms if we may so term them, for home consumption: the real reason of the celebrity of the ice produced from the Wenham Lake lies in the fact of its being near the seaboard, which enables the company to which it belongs to ship it easily to all parts of the world. This lake is only eighteen miles north-east of Boston, and by means of the Eastern Railway, which receives a branch line from the lake itself, is within an hour's run of the wharf at that city; so that, for all practical purposes, the ice might be said to be formed at the ship's side. These unusual facilities have enabled the company to withstand competition, otherwise the market of England would soon have become keenly contested by the Yankee ice speculators, for this article is extensively used in America, and large sheets of water are utilized as much as mines; and here, when nature is everywhere else at rest, the ice farmer watches with anxiety the product of his watery acres, ripening through the absence of the sun.
    If it were not for the difficulties of conveyance, Barnum would have been long ere this looking upon the Mer de Glace as a speculative lot, and making bids for all the mountain peaks of Europe above the snow line. Owing to this drawback, however, it is found more practicable to bring even this perishing commodity a distance of three thousand miles.
    The ice trade in America has long reached a magnitude [-245-] of which we in the old country have no conception. What we consider a luxury brother Jonathan has long looked upon as a common necessary of life. He cannot live without a plentiful supply of ice. It might be urged that this is owing to the great heat of the American summers. Perhaps so; but that which at one season of the year is desirable and delicious, at another can only be indulged in through habit. The Americans consume pretty much the same quantity of ice in the winter .as in the summer. With every meal it is placed upon the table, and it forms a constituent of all their drinks. In England, a publican will tell you that two thirds of his spirit-drinking customers will call for hot brandy-and-water; in an American liquor-store, the constant demand is for a glass of sherry with a knob of ice in it, or cocktail, or mint julep, with the like accompaniment of liquefying crystal.
    The aggregate consumption of this article throughout the States must be something enormous, for in Boston alone upwards of 50,000 tons are consumed annua.lly-a much larger quantity than is used throughout England. 'rhe ice crop of America. is consequently of great national importance; and as it is liable to perish by change of weather, even more quickly than grain, human ingenuity has been brought into play to cut and house it with a speed and regularity strongly contrasting with the rude manner of smashing it with poles and shovelling in the irregular lumps, such as we see practised upon our homegrown ice.
    The scene at Wenham Lake after a hard frost is highly interesting. At first sight, the stranger is puzzled to make out the meaning of the process he sees going on upon the [-246-] level surface of the dark ice. If it were land, he would not wonder; but what can the horses be ploughing for? That he will presently see is part of the process of reaping the ice harvest. This season generally commences when the ice is about a foot thick, provided always no snow has fallen and melted on it. Operations are begun by ruling a line as it were across the slippery surface of a circumscribed space of about three or four acres; this line is made by a small and exceedingly sharp hand-plough, which cuts along the solid mass, throwing up as it progresses a glittering dust. This line, which is two or three inches in depth, serves as a guide to a machine drawn by horses called the marker, which traversing beside it, cuts two parallel lines, about twenty-one inches apart. Similar lines are drawn until the whole surface is thus marked. The grooves are now deepened to six inches by the action of a horse-plough. A similar process is carried on at right angles; so that when the whole is finished, the entire area is divided into squares of twenty-one inches each way. The next step is to detach these blocks from each other and lift them out of the water. To accomplish this, the saw is brought into play, and a line of squares having been cut through, the remainder are easily detached and floated out by means of the ice spade, a wedge-like implement, which no sooner enters the groove, than the block splits off with the utmost ease   that is, provided the weather is frosty during the operation; otherwise the task is not quite so easy, the ice being much more tough when thawing. The floating squares have now to be secured and housed; for this purpose, a low platform is placed near the edge of the ice, having an inclined plane of iron, which dips down [-247-] into the water. Up this plane the great blocks are jerked by the ice-man, who wields his ice-hook with great dexterity. When a load is secured, it is transferred to a sledge, and drawn to the ice stores which line one side of the lake. The process of lifting is performed by a horse, and is exceedingly ingenious. Each block is pushed from the sledge on to a platform of exactly the same height, in the centre of which is a square opening, fitted with a hoisting frame; on to this the block is slid, the horse immediately pulls, the platform ascends, and when it reaches an opening in the ice-house, it is made to tilt up and discharges its slippery burden into its interior.
    These ice-houses are themselves worthy of attention; they are, in fact, gigantic refrigerators. Generally, they are built of pine-wood, with double walls, placed about two feet apart, the space being filled up with sawdust, a very perfect non-conducting medium. In these houses the loss by thawing is very inconsiderable compared to the mass in store   the greatest waste, as we shall see presently, occurring on the voyage of such as is exported.
    To secure this perishing crop, numbers of men are employed in fine frosty weather. As many as a hundred men, and between thirty and forty horses, are often to be seen busily engaged upon the lake, and the scene is full of bustle and life. If, however, a fall of snow should come on, all further operations are put an end to, and the proprietors look with an anxious eye to the weather-glass: if it is high, and no thaw succeeds, there is not much harm done. When the snow-storm ceases, the surface of the ice is swept clean, and the process of cutting again proceeds. If, on the contrary, the snow should thaw, [-248-] snow-ice would be formed with the next frost; and this being quite worthless, must be removed before the sound portion can be gathered in. This process is performed by a plane drawn by horses, which, guided by a grooved line, smoothly cuts off to the depth of three inches all the rotten surface, and exposes the black-looking solid ice beneath. If by this skimming process it is rendered too thin to store, a night or two's frost will add below the required thickness.
    When the ice is wanted either for home consumption or shipment, it is placed in air-tight trucks, which carry it at once along the line to Boston, and even to the ship's side. When taken on board, it is carefully packed in sawdust, and excluded as much as possible from the external salt air. But, notwithstanding every precaution that it is possible to take, waste of from a third to a half of its substance often occurs. A ship which left Boston, for instance, fifty-one days since, with 502 tons of ice~ arrived in London with only 326 tons   thus there was a loss of 176 tons in that time. This loss was owing to two causes. Firstly, the great difficulty of procuring a good drainage in a ship, in consequence of which the sawdust becomes saturated, and is converted into a conductor of heat; and, secondly, the extraordinary solvent powers of the sea atmosphere, impregnated as it is with salt, which, housekeepers know, thaws ice instantly.
    Arrived in this country, it is stored in the warehouses belonging to the company. These are situated in the dry arches supporting the Waterloo-road, which, towards the bridge, are at least forty feet high and seventy feet long. In these spacious dungeons, in silence and in darkness, old [-249-] King Frost is cooped a close prisoner through the long summer days.
    The visitor who is curious enough to inspect these storehouses sees nothing but huge heaps of sawdust; but the frosty breath issuing from his mouth makes him aware of the low temperature of the atmosphere. In the season, as much as two thousand tons of ice are sometimes stored here without losing much in weight. These gigantic icehouses, five in number, happen to run underneath some fish-shops, which, it will be remembered, lie on the left-hand side of the road, going over the bridge from the Strand; and there is a capital joke told by the ice-men thereanent. On one or two occasions they found, much to their astonishment, a number of lobster-shells among the ice, a circumstance which puzzled them as much as the presence of minnows in the milk-jug would a London housekeeper. The mystery was speedily cleared up, however, by finding that some of the bricks at the end of one of the vaults had (of course by accident) become loosened, and the vast refrigerator was conveniently bestowing its preservative powers upon the fresh fish stores of the superimposed warehouses.
    We have spoken hitherto of the Wenham Lake ice exclusively, but it is not pretended that all the ice comes from thence that is imported by the company. Cargoes are often imported from Norway, of excellent ice, cut and carried on the same principle as in America. Indeed, it would be but reasonable to suppose that as the demand increased the ice-producing countries of the northern latitudes would be laid under contribution. Nevertheless, it will be a long time before they can come in competition [-250-]  with the ice-trade of America, where every appliance for its preservation and conveyance has been so long in use.
    Of course, it would be utterly impossible to tell the nationality of different blocks, as they all consist of pure spring water. Any block that is at all tainted in colour, or which holds any impurity in solution, however clear it might appear, is always put aside at once as rough ice for freezing purposes. Consequently, the ice sold as Wenham Lake ice by the company may be used with confidence in immediate contact with the articles of food required to be cooled.
    Before the Wenham Lake Ice Company introduced the portable refrigerators it was only the rich, who possessed ice-houses, that could command a cooling medium in the sweltering summer months. Now every man, for eight pounds, can possess a. more perfect ice-house than any nobleman did a few years ago. Indeed, the old ice-houses have become entirely obsolete now that any gentleman, for ten pounds a year, can keep his refrigerator constantly full in any part of the country, the company forwarding the ice in square hampers, carefully packed in sawdust.
    The refrigerators are made on pretty nearly the same principle as the fire-safe, the object of both being the same    to keep their contents free from the action of the external temperature. To ensure this, the walls are filled with charcoal, the best non-conductor for the purpose.
    Among the many comforts we moderns enjoy, we know of none comparable to the comfort    no! comfort is not the word   the absolute luxury afforded us through this singular application of a scientific principle. Henceforth, no decent householder need tolerate swimming butter or [-251-]  lukewarm drinking water in the dog-days. Neither should tough joints, warm from the slaughter-house, be suffered to pass as heretofore, on the plea that "there is no keeping meat this hot weather." We have invented a shield that the arrows of Apollo cannot penetrate, and the iced larder will, without doubt, soon become as much a universal comfort among us as the bright fireside.
    To butchers and dealers in perishable provisions of all kinds this invention will prove invaluable, as its adoption will obviate all the inconveniences to which they have hitherto been put in warm weather.
    It may be asked, however, why we need go so many thousand miles for ice, whilst we have it produced at home? "Protection to British pools!" Native ice for ever! The reason is very clear. Those who noticed the huge block of ice that used to be exposed in the window of the Wenham Lake Ice Company, in the Strand, a worthy throne for King Frost himself, will remember how long it remained there during the very hot weather, and how imperceptible was its thaw.
    The same weight of snow, which is of course ice in infinitely small particles, would, if scattered on the ground, have melted in a few minutes, at even a temperate degree of heat. This difference between the two bodies in resisting the liquefying power of the atmosphere is entirely owing to the varying amount of surface exposed to its influence. The solid cube of ice of, say two hundred pounds weight, can only be attacked by the air acting on its six superficies, which, compared with its entire bulk, forms but a small portion of the whole; whereas, the millions of particles of ice forming the snow mass of  equal [-252-] weight, present scarcely anything but surface to the surrounding atmosphere. Now, English ice might be considered little better than snow for durability, as it is generally taken in a very fragmentary condition from shallow pools, which are not always even pure to the eye. American ice would be superfluous if we could procure blocks from some of our spring-water lakes, but these being generally of great depth, require harder and more continuous frosts to freeze them to any thickness, than we are ever visited with.
    As long, then, as Dame Nature continues the sole manufacturer, we must depend for our blocks of table ice upon countries whose latitudes or isothermal lines are colder than our own. The time is not, however, far distant when we shall be enabled to dispense with the aid of the winter season, and to imitate at all times of the year the process of nature in the formation of ice. The question has long been reduced to one of expense, chemistry having already shown us a dozen methods of producing degrees of cold far beyond anything that nature spontaneously exhibits. Thus, the liquid carbonic acid gas, whilst in the act of evaporating, stands at 165 degrees below zero, and the ice formed by it is so intensely cold that it instantly causes a slough upon the hand that holds it. This method of producing ice is, however, both expensive and dangerous, and we only mention it for the purpose of showing how powerful are the resources of the chemist.
    The simple action of freezing water, however, can be effected with comparative economy, and in small quantities ice is formed by the mere evaporation of water from the surface of porous vessels. Within these last few years [-253-] patents have been taken out for forming it on a large scale, and the great demand into which it has grown will no doubt induce our chemists, sooner or later, to bring their knowledge practically to bear upon so important and profitable a subject.