Icy weather – Good news, bad news for the miners
Ice has been both a blessing and a hindrance to Nevada County commerce in the past two centuries. While mining had always been the major industry from the earliest days of settlement after the discovery of gold, ice blockage in the ditches supplying water-power to the mines forced suspension of quartz mining operations, often for weeks at a time.
By the 1880s its effects on the employees of the big mining operations, the Idaho, Empire and North Star , would be felt throughout the county by trickling down to the small businesses and stores if the miners were out of work for too long.
The long “vacations” were unwelcome, to both the miners and the mine owners, as it was a losing one in every respect. Time was money, and unless the miners were producing there was a loss.
At the same time the ice industry in upper Nevada County continued to be an important industry as the demand for ice grew throughout the country. Ice was harvested and stored for delivery both in and out of the county, and could be delivered to homes and businesses in the high-demand summer months.
The railroad was one of the factors that made it possible. Running through the mountain regions of Nevada County, railroad cars would freight the ice in both directions, east and west.
Ice could be harvested on natural and man-made ponds, creeks and streams and often large buildings would be erected over the bends of the creeks for convenience to the ice houses.
In 1881 the Summit Ice Co. had a large building 450 feet in length by 50 feet wide as well as smaller buildings, with plans to increase the large building by extending it 400 or 500 feet.
Before expansion, the Summit Ice Co, along the Prosser Creek, employed just under a hundred men. Ice would be “marked and ploughed” between midnight and daylight. At six in the morning, additional crews would go on duty and work three to six hours.
The Summit had storage for 18,000 tons, in addition they would load several thousand tons directly onto railroad cars to be shipped both east and west to be stored until the warm weather came.
When the ice had frozen to the required thickness, the first step would be marking off the ice into squares of 22 inches by 14 inches thick.
A line would be drawn by a straight edge and a gauge would be set to measure, keeping the marker at the exact distance needed. The marker was similar to a plow, without the gauge, and was made of steel with sharp teeth and resembled the action of an immense saw.
It took two men to run each plow, the plow had seven teeth and would cut into the ice only a quarter of an inch deep, thus cutting an inch and three-quarters each time, taking a number of times to cut the ice deep enough in order to break it off evenly. For an exceptionally good harvest, the ice would be crystal clear and smooth as glass.
During the winter season, Prosser Creek had the advantage of temperature ranges from zero to 25 degrees below in the coldest weather.
Maria E. Brower is a local researcher and member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and the Nevada County Historical Society. She works at the Doris Foley History Branch Library.
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