The Real Stuff of the Past

Ice. Bricks. Wrecks.

schultz brick

I discovered three potential novels today in a small museum in Kingston, New York. Anyway, there were artifacts that could be the seeds of novels, historical subject matter so robust and potent that some writer’s sure to climb on board. One day soon, I hope.

I was there for a festival celebrating the Hudson River, but it didn’t take place, so I was left to wander without a plan. The Hudson River Maritime Museum houses itself in a weathered brick building on Rondout Creek in Kingston, where it keeps alive the history of the area. It teems with artifacts from the D and H canal, which brought anthracite coal from the innards of the country to the Hudson between 1828 and 1898, from the steamboats that brought nineteenth-century travellers from New York City north, the tugboats which dominated this place when so much freight went by ship, and the various industries that sprang up around here in the nineteenth century.

The dock area bustled. You could see the Half Moon, the working replica of the ship Henry Hudson drove up this very river, complete down to the most persnickety detail.

hudson detail

Costumed interpreters introduced jaded suburbanites to a living space smaller than the smallest New York City apartment.You could also see a new topmast being planed for the boat, by a gentleman foregoing period tools for more efficient electric sanders.


There was a yellow submarine.


The Seahorse can hold two crew members and has been used for archaeological dives in Lake George.

Mammoth propellers studded the grounds.


But what I loved, going inside the chock full precincts of the museum, was the ice. Here was talk, detailed talk, of an industry that had basically vanished by mi-century but was incredibly important before.

The Kingson area was a hub for ice harvesting. And since ice was crucial for warm weather food preservation (not to mention ice cream making), it was big business.


Over one hundred ice houses dotted the shores of the Hudson in 1900. Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879. Everything about the industry was big, especially the ice saws and other tools.

ice saws

One detail that especially excited me is that the same horses employed to drag huge blocks of ice off of the river during the winter would be brought down to New York City to pull the ice wagons in the summer. I’d like to follow one of those ice horses, alternate between life in two such different port cities.

ice wagon

One of my  heroines out of history, English traveller and diarist Fanny Trollope, made the comment, in the 1830s, “I do not imagine there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” I’d love to read more and write more about the sweat that went into that cold work.


2 bricks

The Dutch in New Amsterdam imported small, hard yellow bricks from Holland. Then someone realized the magnificence of the natural clay deposits in America. Along the Hudson River men molded “green brick” in wood frames, and it had to be carefully turned when drying.


Imprinted names came either from the brickyard owner or could be commissioned.

brick tower

Such beautiful, beefy stuff, this brick, and the story behind it.

Then, the wrecks. Some of the steamboat capsizings on the Hudson in the middle of the 1800s were doozies. People were so excited about the new toy, a boat without sails, that they raced passenger steamers up and down the Hudson seemingly without a thought in their heads. The boats offered their genteel riders swellegant accommodations and a chance to see the breathtaking views along the way.

The Swallow, built in 1836 in Brooklyn, raced the Rochester between New York and Albany in a snow squall in 1843. Well, it stuck on a rock, ultimately breaking in two, and 15 of the 200 passengers died. In the total darkness of night, they couldn’t see that they were close enough to get easily to shore.


The Henry Clay disaster occurred when the boat left Albany in 1852 and began racing the Amenia, with a fire erupting at Yonkers and the craft beaching at Riverdale. Seventy men and women died, including the famous landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. It was, as you can imagine, a nightmare and a scandal and terrific news copy all combined.


There was the Thomas Cornell (ran aground), the Daniel Drew (burned), the Trojan (burned), John H. Cordts (burned). A piece of panelling from the Cordts has been preserved. These were magnificent creatures, these vessels, costly, exciting. And doomed.

burnt detail

In the silt of the Hudson lie small boats, barges, sunken bricks, barnacled anchors. All mysterious pieces of the past, hidden from us.

Those steamboat races, though. They are fact. But they are the stuff of great fiction.

ferry sign


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman

6 responses to “The Real Stuff of the Past

  1. The festival was actually still going on, I just missed the event I wanted to see on Saturday.
    We had a house for a long time in Ulster Park, spent a lot of time in Kingston, and I know how haunted the place is! A lot has changed, but as Faulker said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

  2. This little city is filled with historical novels just waiting to be discovered! Next time you’ll have to hit the Trolley Museum or the Firehouse Museum or the Fred Johnson Museum or the Senate House (Kingston was the first capital of NY) and 139 Washington Ave for a cup of tea with me! Sorry you missed the Hudson River Fest by a day, heard it was well attended on a scorcher of a day.

  3. Yes, Americans hated her for the fun she poked at them and called her lots of names, including trollop. She was a genius, so she didn’t care. Went on to publish over 100 books.

  4. “diarist Fanny Trollope” … wonder if she was ever made fun of, with a last name like that.

  5. You are so right. Maybe I’ll be the one to do it.


    My vote goes to ICE. The romantic commerce of ICE. Heck… if we devour books titled *COD: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World* and *SALT: A WORLD HISTORY* … think of the furor that would accompany a book titled ICE… fiction or non-fiction! No kidding. I *love* ice! We ALL love ice!

    In central Nebraska, the name of Grand Island’s utility company from 1920 to 1956 (yes!) was the Grand Island Water, Ice, and Electric Company. There was a city ice pond and a city ice house… I guess every farm and every estate and every town had them.

    In the 1940’s and 1950’s my uncle in Pennsylvania ran a big grocery store with a walk-in freezer in which customers could rent shelf space. In antique stores in Nebraska, I collected iron ice tongs… various sizes for various blocks of ice… for various sizes of refrigerators… and my kids skated on the icy lake with no fear in the winter.

    Yes, bricks are building blocks, and wrecks have tragic outcomes. But… ICE… Ice is NICE!

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