The Frozen-Water Trade

Gavin Weightman

Read December 2004

The book's focus is on a very minor but utterly fascinating story. Before New England became an energy powerhouse, sending ships right around the continent to harvest whales from the Pacific, she was one of the world's great ice providers, dispatching the goods as far as British India. The trade begins when a New England dreamer, Frederic Tudor, decides to export ice to the Caribbean. He faces staggering odds (including no small measure of mockery) and for a long time barely stays solvent (so to speak). Eventually, through technical innovations—chiefly the use of sawdust, which was in plentiful supply as a byproduct of lumber activity—he succeeds in enticing whole new regions of the world (such as India) with the frozen product of New England's lakes (and, in a pinch, rivers).

The book shifts between two metaphors for ice: is it a crop, to be grown and harvested, or is more like a mineral, to be mined? This distinction proves to be less than academic, leading to interesting issues of ownership in the face of the law.

I was surprised that one could build such a trade at all out of the ice from a lake. Weightman quotes what is, to me, the somewhat shocking yield of a thousand tons of ice per acre per year (p. 159). Yet Amy Butler Greenfield convinces me that this is hardly a surprising yield, and she should know. Given this yield it is perhaps less surprising to hear that at one time, ice contributed to the greatest tonnage in Boston harbor!

The end of the book is a bit of a let-down. There are two many quotes, and even repeated phrases, suggesting sloppy editorial work (and authorship). But don't let that stop you. This is a perfectly enjoyable read.

While I was reading this book, Ben Landon wrote me to say he was in Madras (Chennai). The book mentions the Ice House of Madras, a structure I'd never seen or heard of. I asked Ben to inquire after it with a local. It does! That felt like a touching footnote to a heartening story—long after Tudor's detractors have passed away, his building remains in use half-way across the world.