Most established museums have storage areas where many undocumented and unidentified artifacts wait their turn to be “discovered.” There is no shortage of such at the Angels Camp Museum, and a recent discovery by a staff member in the Pole Barn led to a fascinating story about a mostly forgotten industry.
That discovery was a hand-forged ice saw once used to literally saw ice into manageable blocks. Further digging revealed the museum had a pair of ice augers, a bar chisel and tongs for carrying blocks. All essential tools used 100 years ago to harvest natural ice.
The first step to creating ice as a product was to establish a pond by damming up a stream and flooding the upstream canyon. Once frozen, the pond was “marked off” with lines scribed into the surface. Crewmen would then cut out rafts, 2-blocks-by-6-blocks, to open up a water channel in the ice. Using pike poles, the floating blocks would be guided to a conveyer belt and lifted into the ice house to be cut into smaller blocks typically 22-inches square. Amazingly, ice could be stored for up to three years in an ice house despite the lack of mechanical refrigeration.
Beginning in 1868, ice harvesting was big business in the Sierra as ice companies sprang up all along the Truckee River. At its peak, the Truckee produced 300,000 tons of ice in a single year.
Around the time of World War I, as ice production became mechanized, the shutting down of the old ice houses in the Sierra signaled the end of the local natural ice industry.
Source: Ball, Jamie, “History of the Truckee Ice Harvesting Industry”, Sierra Sun, 19 Dec. 2001.