It was a slippery business, no doubt — one harnessed to the uncertainties of weather — but Kamloops was home to a thriving ice trade for more than half a century.
Ice harvesting was once a booming industry in North America, employing an estimated 100,000 workers. In the era before refrigeration — until the 1930s and ’40s — natural ice was cut, stored and sold for use in homes, hotels, hospitals and aboard passenger trains to keep food and beverages cool.
The Thompson River delivered the goods to the city’s doorstep, seemingly an ideal location at the nexus of two large tributaries. Closer to the coast, the ice was too thin. Higher in the mountains, the snow was too deep. Here, it passed the quality assurance test, though not with any degree of reliability.
Deep and clear was the iceman’s hope, but there were no guarantees. To the contrary, historical records suggest that winter weather in these parts — as unpredictable as it can be on any given day in the 21st century — was just as fickle in the 19th.
In 1843, for example, Hudson’s Bay Company factor John Tod reported a game of football (probably soccer) on New Year’s Day in what is now North Kamloops. Westsyde residents still wipe the sleep from their eyes to continue that tradition every Jan. 1.
Though ice harvesting was common on a small scale, the first commercial-scale operation in Kamloops serviced the CPR. The railway built an icehouse near the mouth of Peterson Creek in 1886.
According to historical research done years ago by Less Mobbs for the Kamloops Museum, J.S. Bennet won the first contract to supply the CPR three years later. Bennet’s crews harvested 1,200 tonnes annually. This supplied CPR dining cars as well as the company’s string of hotels between Vancouver and Revelstoke.
An equal amount was cut by other contractors for “town houses” to provide service to businesses and dwellings. Thomas Costley, who ran a livery stable, won the CPR contract in 1891. Sam Scott and his two sons also delivered ice in Kamloops for many years and moved their headquarters to Fruitlands (now North
Kamloops) in 1911.
Bennet reportedly did well, earning a small fortune some seasons, but the business had its share of risk.
Weather was a constant worry for the ice contractor, Mobbs observed. Bennet secured the contract again in January 1890, began cutting ice of “excellent quality and of good thickness.” The next week it was a different story.
In 1891, nature wasn’t co-operating again.
“The anticipated ice famine has been averted,” The Inland Sentinel dutifully reported. Bennet took his crew to Griffin Lake, near Three Valley Gap, to obtain the supply. When they thought the river was ready for harvesting a few weeks later, they misjudged. A horse and wagon plunged through the ice. The horse, fortunately, was saved.
“Solid blocks of ice 18 by 20 inches square weigh about 400 pounds, of which fact J.S. Bennet was sharply reminded when one dropped on the fifth toe of his left foot,” the Sentinel reported. “He is consequently wearing a cane.”
When S.S. Scott & Sons went out of business in 1946, they gave their remaining supply to Royal Inland Hospital.
Ice was also cut at nearby Edith Lake, as late as 1947, and hauled to Kamloops by sled.
Mechanical refrigerators came along early in the 20th century, though they weren’t widely available as home appliances until the 1930s. A newspaper ad placed by (N.S. Dalgleish Ltd., a local department store) in May 1912 offered refrigerators ranging from $10 to $50. Prior to this, many households had an icebox with compartments for blocks of ice.
Money may have been scarce during the Great Depression, but at least the weather was good for business, The Sentinel reported:
“With there being no particular letup of the weather so far as freezing the already thick ice on the river thicker day by day, it must have been with great sigh of relief that SS Scott, well-known local iceman and his workers, tucked away the last block of this year’s supply of 2,300 tons of ice at the end of a straight three weeks stretch a day or so ago. ‘Tucked away,’ however, on second thought, is rather a bit too stretched when one looks over at the huge storage sheds fairly bursting their sides to properly house their bulky content.”
Historical background for this article was provided by Kamloops Museum and Archives through research by Les Mobbs, Mary Balf and Sherry Bennett.