Cold Cuts: The Raquette Lake Ice Harvest

by Elizabeth Folwell | February 2020

Frozen water is guaranteed on Adirondack lakes and ponds, starting from a thin skim when temperatures drop in December. In 2019 some lakes had ice more than 30 inches thick by March 1.

It’s a bountiful harvest for Raquette Lake Supply (RLS), the blocky building (general store, laundry, bakery, tap room, hotel and offices) overlooking Raquette Lake’s public boat launch, where pickup trucks, snowmobiles, dozens of people and the ice-cutting machine assemble on a Saturday in February. The area, bounded by evergreen branches, yields more than 2,000 cakes of ice that measure 22 by 22 by 14 inches thick, the optimal size for handling and storage. When cut free, the blocks are floated toward a conveyor fabricated by RLS; trucks cart the bluish rectangles to the icehouse to be stacked 10 to 12 layers high.

Long before Fiji water was shipped from a tropical aquifer to consumers across the globe, long before South Africans dreamed an Antarctic iceberg could float their drought away, Raquette Lake ice was traveling great distances too. The ice job began in the 19th century, when New York Central railcars headed for a huge icehouse in White Lake and then down the line to Utica and Manhattan (reportedly, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel used only Raquette Lake ice). In 1908, a typical year, more than 650 railroad cars were loaded with this natural product.

Today the frozen asset still performs its time-honored purpose, cooling. But it’s not for Yetis or Colemans or even gin and tonics—this ice provides air-conditioning in RLS’s bar and runs refrigeration in its store. As meltwater gathers in the icehouse it is pumped to RLS pipes and circulated.

But for the volunteers who gather to push 200-pound cakes of ice with pike poles or heave blocks onto the conveyor with iron tongs, harvesting ice is also a tradition that brings families together from all over. Corn-husking bees may be the stuff of memory now, but Raquette Lake ice lives on.  

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