The Risks and Rewards of the Frozen St. Croix

The Lily Lake (Stillwater) Ice House Crew was still hard at work as recently as January 19, 1947.

The frigid winter months for the early European settlers along the St. Croix proved to be a struggle for survival and a fight to keep up spirits. When she was interviewed in 1900, Lydia Carli, one of the earliest women to come to the area, recalled the first cold Christmas holidays that she celebrated with her guests: “The table had no covering of cloth. We didn’t use one for the reason that, in the winter, it would freeze to the table if anything wet was spilled on it.”

Supplying winter provisions proved to be a matter of life or death. Captain Stephen Hanks came to the area in the mid-1800s and helped keep the lumberjacks fed. The men logged in the winter, and sent the timber floating down the river in the summer. Captain Hanks had to make an emergency provisions trip to the city of St. Louis, Mo., to fetch food for the hungry woodsmen. He came back loaded with “several tons of beans, hominy, eggs and dried apples,” according to Holly Day’s history book, Stillwater, Minnesota. What the men really wanted, though, was meat.

Although sustenance might have been scarce in the winter, the one consistent harvest along the river was ice. Residents could always rely on winter, so the St. Croix Lake Ice Co. was formed around 1877 to cut giant blocks out of the river, store them in giant barns and sell the frozen chunks year round. Digging and drilling deep into the ice, these brave souls endured the “crystal harvest” of slicing thousands of pounds of frozen river water for about six to eight weeks in January and February. Horses hauled the load to shore on sleds, where large barns, the summer “ice houses,” stored this year’s yield in a snug bed of sawdust, the only “air-conditioned” building in town. According to Brent Peterson of the Washington County Historical Society, the Bayport Ice Co. harvested so much ice by the 1930s that it shipped out 2,208 railcars full, mostly to La Crosse, Wis., and the stockyards in South St. Paul. Later progress, in the form of the refrigerator, doomed this prosperous company.
While winter shut down riverboats and the frigid weather sometimes prevented mail carriers from performing their sacred duty, the frozen river also provided opportunities. The thick ice provided a sort of bridge to cross the river freely, but dangerous currents made for risky thin ice. Anderson Lumber Co., eventually known as Anderson Windows, decided to move in 1913 from Hudson to south of Stillwater, which became Bayport, Minn. The movers had to wait until the coldest part of the winter to lug the heavy machinery across the thick ice rather than struggling over the newly built toll bridge.

To take advantage of this frozen waterway, riverboat builder Martin Mower dreamed up a new invention in 1877, which became the talk of the town. “Is it an ice steamboat or a steam iceboat?” pondered the editor of the Taylors Falls Journal, John McCourt, who admired the 30-foot-long “boat” with four sled runners to allow the carriage to skim over the ice. When Mower was finally ready to debut his steam iceboat, the Queen Piajuk, it featured wall-to-wall carpeting in the “ladies’ retiring chamber” and elegantly upholstered divans. One journalist raved that it reminded him of Chicago’s elegant Palmer House Hotel with its Egyptian Parlor.

On February 4 of that year, the Queen Piajuk chugged along to gather the passengers waiting for a ride. A journalist from the St. Paul Pioneer Press awaited this ice boat, nicknamed the “St. Croix Grasshopper,” which was “clawing along the river at the rate of  7 miles an hour,” a speed easily surpassed by even a poky cross-country skier. The public raved and wondered why more iceboats didn’t provide regular passenger service. Mower worried that his invention would tumble through the ice or simply fall apart. He waited for two years until he did a longer run from Arcola to Marine Mills, Osceola, Franconia and Taylors Falls, Minn., before retiring the Queen Piajuk and his hopes of an ice passenger line.