Ice - A History
Explosion of Ice Businesses
From 1851 to 1913 there was an explosion of businesses making ice. The California gold rush (1849–1855) and a rising economy made a demand for luxuries such as ice. Nevada Ice Company by M. Tallman in Pilot Creek, Calif., Sitka Ice Company, Summit Ice Company by Fitz William Reddings Jr. and B. B. Reddings, of railroad fame, in Serne Lake, Calif. and the most famous American-Russian Commercial Company or to the Russians, The Russian-American Company in Sitka and Kodiak, Alaska.
The American-Russian Commercial Company
The American-Russian Commercial Company was founded by San Francisco Entrepreneurs and Siberian Merchants in 1851. It was founded to supply San Francisco with ice. This company existed as the American-Russian Commercial Company until 1867 when Alaska was purchased by the United States. The name was changed to The Kodiak Ice Company and it continued with that name until it’s liquidation in 1881.
1867 Russian Ice House
In 1851 the Russians constructed a large ice house in Sitka and began selling ice which eventually dominated the trade in the Russian territory of Alaska. This ice block house was disassembled and preserved in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1867. It is now the property of the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Creating Ice Blocks
To create the ice blocks, Tanignak Lake on Kodiak Island was dammed to increase its depth. The Aleutian’s were trained to harvest the ice. Captain David B. Walker was the superintendent of this work. During the winter months the operation was moved to Sitka where the Tlingit’s worked the ice.
Harvesting the ice consisted of a horse harnessed to an iron sled. This sled was made with two runners: one was smooth, the other was saw-toothed. The saw-toothed runner would cut a two-inch gouge into the ice. To keep the ice blocks, uniform the horses and sled were drawn across the ice in a checkerboard formation making it possible to separate the ice with a single blow. In Sitka the ice blocks were stacked on top of each other, hauled over wood rails to the harbor where they were then loaded onto ships heading to San Francisco, Calif. Over the years 1851 to 1867 over 10,000 tons of ice were shipped south.
1867 United States
In 1867 United States many exciting things were happening. Nebraska became the 37th state to the Union. Gold was found in the Stikine River in Alaska. The invention of the first commercial refrigerator took place in 1854. Commercial freezers were in use 40 years before the first refrigerator for the home became available in 1913. One of the biggest happening during this time was the purchase of the Russian territory of Alaska on March 30, 1867 for 586,412 square miles or 1,518,800 km at the price of 7.2 million dollars in gold.
Purchase of the Alaskan Territory
This purchase was given many names such as: “WalRussia,” “Icebergia,” “Polaria,” “Polar bear garden” or the well-known name “Seward’s Ice Box.”
Russia had offered the Alaskan territory to the United States several times. Just prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) they offered to sell the Alaskan territory to the United States for 5 million dollars. The Civil War broke out and all talks were stopped. In 1866 William H. Seward, Secretary of State, to President Abraham Lincoln was sent in response to another offer by Russia to sell. Russia was in dire financial trouble, the ice trade was falling as more refrigeration become available and the Russian’s felt the Alaskan territory had no natural resources. With the rumors of gold and the military vulnerability to the north talks began again on the purchase of the Alaska. This time the price was 7.2 million dollars for the 586,412 acres. The exchange rate in 1861 between the American dollar and the Russian rubles was 4.9 to $1.00. (closest found documented rate)
7.2 million dollar equals 1,469,387.7551 rubles
7.2 million divided by 586,412 sq. mile equals 1.22780570657 cents
7.2 million divided by 1,518,800 km equals 4.74058467211 cents
Why the fractional percent per acre?
The question arises why such an odd amount per acre? Why not exactly 1 cent per acre or 5.0 per km? While visiting the Denali National Forest in Sitka, Alaska in 2009 the tour guide suggested that the odd amounts were due to the purchase of an ice contract. The 1983 translation of the Russian document “Acta Slavica Iaponica 1:15-37” by James R. Gibson states “The Russian-American Company received the compensation for the loss of territory in the amount of 6,526.666 rubles.” The Russian-American Company was an ice company.
Seward's Ice Box
We know now looking back on history that the purchase of Alaska was of great benefit to the United States with the gold and oil. There is no condemnation felt now that would bring on names such as: “Polar Bear garden,” “WalRussia,” “Polaria,” “Icebergia” or “Seward’s Ice Box.” We do know now that “Seward’s Ice Box” was referring to the compensation for the loss of territory to an ice company.