When Steam Brought Cold, and Fire Made Ice

The weather has turned hot. Gratuitously hot. Texas hot.
Are you being kept cool by the air-conditioning in your car, your home, your office?
Do you have plenty of cold drinks in the refrigerator, lots of ice in the freezer?
Then chill out as we go back in time to July 18, 1876.

On that date B. B. Paddock’s Fort Worth Democrat reported that a temperature of “one hundred in the shade” and “intense heat and burning sand” “precluded the possibility of any very keen enjoyment” by a representative of the Democrat who visited the “beautiful little city” of Cleburne.

Now I hear you say, “So in 1876 it was hot in Texas in the summer. I’m sure our ancestors dealt with it—just like we do.”

Well, yes and no.

Many of the creature comforts of folks living in 1876 had not changed much in decades.

In 1876 air-conditioning was a raised window and a handfan.

In 1876 beverages—from sarsaparilla to beer—were more likely to be served cool than cold. Ice for drinks was a luxury in Fort Worth. Oh, sure, after Dallas got rail service in 1873 and began to import ice by rail from St. Louis, Fort Worth could import ice from Dallas by wagon. But amounts were limited, and prices were high. Lacking ice, beverages might be kept cool—a relative term—in a cellar or in a burlap bag containing wet sawdust.

But on July 19, 1876—another hot summer day—the first steam locomotive finally arrived in Fort Worth. The coming of the railroad brought profound changes to Fort Worth. The railroad reinflated Fort Worth’s collective sagging psyche after three years of waiting for the track to be laid thirty miles from Dallas. The railroad triggered a population boom, a building boom. Each arriving train brought immigrants, lumber, bricks, cement. Mail and newspapers were delivered faster now. Circuses came to town! Stores and restaurants could offer a far great variety of merchandise and menu. Fort Worth residents could now travel by rail from coast to coast to visit loved ones or just to explore, could board a steam ship in New York or San Francisco and sail to Europe or Asia.

Other changes were perhaps less profound but no less appreciated.
Like cold beer!
In fact, cold anything-you-wanted.

Because rail cars soon began to deliver a commodity that on a hot Texas summer day was pert-near as precious as diamonds: ice!

Ice by the carload. Tons of ice. Ice for saloons, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores. Ice for private homes.
In the middle of the summer.
So much ice that entrepreneurs built “ice houses” to store all the ice arriving by rail.

In 1876 Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company had introduced refrigerated railroad cars to ship beer. In May 1877 a reporter for the Fort Worth Daily Standard toured a rail car loaded with Anheuser beer and two tons of ice. The beer and ice were transferred to the ice house of W. Y. Cooke & Company.

Cooke’s ice house measured forty feet by forty feet and could hold two rail cars of ice and 250 kegs of beer.

Of course, the rail cars were not “refrigerated” in today’s sense, did not mechanically or chemically sustain ice at a temperature below thirty-two degrees. The cars were merely ice-cooled and designed to slow the melting of the ice they contained.

Likewise, Fort Worth’s ice houses were designed to do no more than slow the melting. Because they were not very efficient, ice houses were big—big enough to hold a lot of ice: two rail cars or more.

Gus Schmitz and the W. Y. Cooke company operated two of the first ice houses in town. Both companies sold both ice and beer.

The coming of the railroad had created a new business in town: the sale and delivery of ice.

Saloon owners, among them Gus Rintleman, also built ice houses.

Suddenly, after the railroad arrived, merchants were advertising cold this and cold that: beer, soda water, ice cream, tea. (J. J. Byrne four years later would foresee his own death.)

In 1877 hide dealer F. D. Gurley and carpenters Mole and Loughry began to market “refrigerators” or “ice boxes.” These were just small versions of the “refrigerated” rail cars and ice houses: They merely slowed the melting of the ice they contained.

In 1877 Canto & Stein City Meat Market built its own “refrigerator.” Ice allowed merchants such as Canto & Stein to greatly extend the shelf life of their meat products.

In July 1878, two years after the railroad brought the first imported ice to town, the Fort Worth Daily Standard made an announcement: The iceman cometh! Yes, James T. Doland would build an ice factory in Fort Worth. No more relying on the railroad for ice. The ice factory would be located on the Clear Fork of the Trinity River. The location hints at the source of the water the factory used. Remember: no city waterworks in 1878. Water came from the river, wells, and the sky (cisterns).

By 1878 only a few large Texas cities had an ice factory (Galveston, Austin, San Antonio, Waco), but in 1878 ice factories were announced for Fort Worth, Dallas, Sherman, and Belton.

Just as the Fort Worth newspapers had reported often on the progress of the railroad in 1876, they also reported often on the progress of the ice factory in 1878.

Finally, in September the ice factory was open for business with these prices: two cents a pound for less than twenty-five pounds, a penny and a half a pound for more than twenty-five pounds, a penny a pound for five hundred pounds or more at the factory.

This ad ran in the Democrat day after day in September 1878. Why would an ice factory want great amounts of wood in warm weather? Wooden ice cubes wouldn’t fool anyone. Ah, but here is one of science’s delicious ironies: Fire was used to make ice. The ice factory burned wood to heat water in a boiler to make steam. The steam powered a pump that compressed ammonia. Then, in a process beyond the ken of this liberal arts major, the resultant ammonia vapor sucked all the heat out of water, resulting in . . . ice!

Now that Fort Worth could make its own ice, having access to “refrigerated” rail cars became a two-way track: Not only could ice, beer, meat, and other perishables be imported from far away, but also those products produced here could be exported to distant cities. In a few years Fort Worth’s packing plants especially would benefit from the ability to manufacture ice.

With time, of course, ice-making technology advanced. Compressors of factories were powered by electricity, not steam. Ice-making components got smaller. Much smaller. Fluorocarbon refrigerants (such as Freon) replaced ammonia. More efficient insulation was used. The “refrigerators” and ice boxes of the nineteenth century became the true refrigerators—and freezers—of the twentieth century.

And we progressed from this (1871) . . .

and this (1885) . . .

and this (1891) . . .

to this.

How cool is that?


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8 Responses to When Steam Brought Cold, and Fire Made Ice

  1. Al Reader says:

    My great-grandfather was delivering ice in Fort Worth into the 1930’s. In his spare time, he was a Tarrant County deputy sheriff in the first decade of the 1900’s and (embarrassingly) the Grand Dragon of the Texas State KKK. Thank God, my family overcame those beliefs.

    • hometown says:

      The Klan was quite mainstream in the 1920s in Fort Worth. Your great-grandfather’s story shows how both technology and attitudes evolve. Thanks, Al.

  2. Jimmy Ray Pitts says:

    Fascinating story. Always wondered when ice became widely available. Makes us appreciate how lucky we are to have a cold beer on demand during the summer heat.

  3. Sharon Brady says:

    Research on history you do for your readers is greatly enjoyed reading.

  4. Dennis Hogan says:

    So when was the last home ice delivery in Fort Worth?

    • hometown says:

      Dennis, I know that ice delivery continued into the 1920s, and one reader response to that post suggests at least into the the 1930s. UPDATE: Still a few ice dealers in 1945 city directory. At least one company delivered. And in 1947 the Star-Telegram‘s Milk and Ice Fund was still delivering ice to the needy.

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