Saturday, November 19, 2016

When the Ice Age Came to Washington Heights -- The Washington Heights Ice Corporation -- and the Palais de Glace

Washington Heights Ice Corporation under construction,
W. 168th Street and Jumel Place, New York City, September 22, 1917.
Courtesy of the New York Historical Society. Rights reserved.
William Davis Hassler, photographer.
The Ice Age came to Washington Heights in the very early part of the 20th century.  There are two notable companies related to the newly developed refrigeration industry that came with the electrification of New York. They were both located right near Highbridge Park.  While both produced ice, they were very different types of establishments.

The Washington Heights Ice Corporation -- 168th Street and Jumel Place

As we have reported earlier, in a post about Dorman L Ormsby, the grandson of the founder of the Dorman L. Ormsby Soda Co., Dorman L. Ormsby III sold the bottling company in 1905. Then, in 1907, Dorman L. Ormsby III shot and killed the new owner of the establishment, Frederick Wehmann

By 1917, at the very site of the former location of Ormsby's Mineral Water Company, a new building was under construction.  The Washington Heights Ice Corporation was building a large facility to produce artificial ice.

Until the early 1900s almost all ice used in New York City, as well as all other colder climates around the world, was obtained from natural ice harvested in the wintertime from frozen fresh water sources (in the case of New York City this was the Hudson River and the lakes in the Catskill Mountain area). Ice harvested from these sources in the winter was then stored in special ice houses, some along the Hudson River, which were very well insulated and permitted the ice to be used throughout the rest of the next spring, summer and fall seasons. The Knickerbocker Ice Company, founded by John J. Felter, John G. Perry, and Edward Felter in 1831, was one of these companies. In years when there was not much natural ice harvested the cost of ice would skyrocket, and, in turn, this would cause food products that needed refrigeration for preservation to increase in price to the consumer.  With the advent of electrical power distribution in New York City it was then possible to produce ice artificially with refrigeration equipment.

During World War I, (1917) in an attempt to make sure there was a plentiful supply of ice for refrigerated food products the State of New York through the Office of the Ice Comptroller, fixed the price of artificial ice at $4.40 a ton.  During the summer of 1918, the amount of natural ice production was high due to the preceding cold winter,  The Washington Heights Ice Corporation, desiring to sell ice and make a profit on their recent investment for the facility they built in 1917, took the Ice Comptroller to task and started selling ice at $3.00 a ton.  In turn, the Ice Comptroller revoked the manufacturing license of the company. The Washington Heights Ice Corporation took the Ice Comptroller to court to force him to restore their license and thereby allow them to sell the ice at the lower price.

In 1919 the court ruled that the Ice Comptroller acted without authority and therefore void and dismissed the summons against the firm.  The Ice Comptroller, Benjamin Odell, who had since become the Governor of New York State subsequently signed a bill abolishing the Office of the Ice Comptroller.

Even with the price controls removed, both the artificial and natural ice production industries were to be short lived.  With the advent of electric powered refrigerators the need for ice in homes and businesses diminished tremendously.  It is not known when the Washington Heights Ice Corporation ceased producing ice.

The Palais de Glace (Ice Palace)   --  500 W. 181st Street.

We are not sure of the exact date the 181st Street Ice Palace rink opened, but it was in the 1910s (the earliest reference I could find was for 1916) and it was a big success. It was located at the southwest corner of 181st Street and Amsterdam Ave. (this location was subsequently occupied by a gas station and a White Castle diner, then in the 1970s the White Castle was demolished and the Shell Gasoline station expanded to the entire block from 180th to 181st St. facing Amsterdam Ave.). The rink was modelled after the famous Palais de Glace on the Champs-Élysées in Paris and the Palais de Glace in Buenos Aires Argentina. Not only did the rink have electrical refrigeration equipment to make the ice, but it also had a special vehicle constructed to "scrape" the ice smooth.

The Ice Scraping machine at the 181st Street Ice Palace
A rebuilt Ford with an electric motor, a specially fitted blade for scraping
and a 70 foot extension cord coming from the rafters
From the Edison Monthly, Edison Electric Company, January 1922.

Columbia University used the ice rink for their hockey team practice and games, and the American Olympic team also used the rink in preparation for the first winter sports at the 1920 Summer Olympics and for the first Winter Olympics Games of 1924 in Chamonix in the French Alps

Sterling Medal 181st St. Ice Skating Palace, 1924

There is no reference to the Ice Palace after 1925.

last modified 2/2/17


  1. a mere 50 or so years later i a nyc resident started going to the state of nh and in some way dealt with ice, vis a vis, refrig made cold by ice, ice houses, ice tongs, sawdust, burlap, etc. all as far as i know, tools of the ice industry, worked at resort finally for couple of years and like the big city electricity helped end the ice industry in nh.

  2. We have received some information that the Ice Skating Rink became a Post Office, but the information still raises some questions. If the person who provided this information would please contact me I would appreciate it very much.