How Northern Nevada Kept Its Cool

Aug 1, 2019

Summertime in Northern Nevada can really bring the heat. Fortunately, for most of us, cooling down is as easy as heading to the refrigerator. But it wasn’t always so easy for our region’s residents to chill out in the hot weather, as historian Alicia Barber explains in this episode of “Time & Place.”

It’s hard to imagine getting through a Northern Nevada summer without easy access to a lot of ice. Today, of course, thanks to the wonders of electricity and modern plumbing, every household can have its own endless supply of perfectly formed frozen cubes.

But that wasn’t the case a century ago, when the only ice available was made the all-natural way, in the great outdoors. In the 1800s, after railroads made it a lot easier to move goods across the country, ice companies began to cut and sell ice that formed in natural or manmade bodies of water, from Alaska to New England. The demand was huge. Railroads needed ice to ship meat and produce. Farms and ranches needed it to keep their goods cool until transport. And families and grocers needed it to keep food and beverages fresh and healthy.

The cold Sierra Nevada winters kept a number of ice operations in business, including a large one at the Boca Reservoir, northeast of Truckee. But ice was produced on rivers and reservoirs all across Nevada, including a small reservoir on the “Divide” between Virginia City and Gold Hill.

Dorothy Young Nichols was born in Gold Hill in 1903, and every winter as a child, she’d watch the workers harvest ice up on the Divide. She described the process in a 1984 interview.

“First they had a horse go on there, and this horse would take the scorer, and they’d go and they’d mark it,” Nichols said. “Then they would saw. The men would saw all this ice, and it would be twelve inches thick. They would push it to the side, and all these young boys would go there with pikes.”

The pikes that the boys held were long, thin poles with a hook at one end that they used to push the large blocks of ice over the surface of the water.

“And they would get them into the chute, and shoot them down the chute into the icehouse,” Nichols said. “And there'd be a layer of ice and a layer of sawdust and a layer of ice and it would do for two years; they'd have enough for two years.”

The layers of sawdust kept the ice blocks from freezing to each other and helped keep them cold. So did the thick walls of the storage house. Ice harvesting was an absolute necessity up on the Comstock, where the temperature of the underground mines could be well over 100 degrees year-round, and the miners needed a constant supply of ice water to drink and soak in.

Households and businesses all over the area scheduled regular deliveries of ice blocks, which they’d place on a special shelf in their “icebox,” basically an insulated cabinet, that would keep everything inside cold until the next delivery. Ranches sometimes had their own ice houses to hold larger numbers of blocks.

The natural ice trade came to an end in the 1920s, when electrically-powered ice houses started manufacturing and storing ice closer to where people lived. Some of those buildings are still standing, including, in Reno, the Crystal Springs Ice House in Midtown and the Union Ice Company on West Fourth Street, and in Sparks, the Pacific Fruit Express Ice House off Interstate 80.

Home refrigerators became common in the late 1920s, but home delivery of ice continued even after World War II, only fading out with the postwar introduction of new consumer appliances including the home freezer.

Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.