Icehouse foundations reminders of prerefrigeration days
I have long been intrigued by the four cement foundations in the railroad yard near the Fifth Street viaduct. As a child and young adult I can remember seeing the icehouses on those foundations, and I have always been curious about them.
Icehouses hark back to the era before railroads began using diesel to refrigerate freight cars. In those days, the only way perishables could be kept cold was by loading ice into bunkers at either end of the car.
Through reading stories in The Daily Sentinel and talking to Wes Henderson, retired superintendent of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, I have satisfied some of my questions.
I could not find the exact year the first icehouses were built. However, in a July 26, 1907, Sentinel story it was reported that the Grand Junction ice plant was running low on ice for domestic use. (Before electric refrigerators were available, “the iceman” made daily deliveries of blocks of ice from that plant to residents, most of whom had “iceboxes” on their back porches.)
Arrangements were made with the railroad company to borrow 30 to 35 tons of ice to get Grand Junction residents through the remainder of the summer. The local plant promised to replace the ice during the next winter.
A fire destroyed the ice houses, freight depot and merchandise cars with all the merchandise inside on Sept. 23, 1918. According to the headline, the entire city of Grand Junction was endangered.
With the booming fruit industry, the railroad quickly built four new icehouses to keep pace with the growing number of packing sheds on the Western Slope. One of those four was destroyed by a fire on Aug. 30, 1947.
When an icehouse went up in flames it was one heck of a fire to fight. The icehouses were constructed of two sections, 6 inches apart, filled with sawdust. The roofs were covered with tarpaper. These icehouses were gigantic; each one measured 120 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 40 feet high and stored up to 33,000 tons of ice.
Hundreds of men were employed in producing the ice and packing it in the bunkers.
Mr. Henderson explained to me that a slide with chutes at different levels was located at the rear and center of each building. Blocks of ice would go down the chute to a platform outside, where the workmen would load the ice into the bunkers. One car could hold 10,000 pounds of ice.
The ice was used not only for up to 80 cars a day leaving Grand Junction, but also for the refrigerated rail cars, or “reefers” as they were referred to by railroaders. They hauled fresh produce from California and Arizona to the east and would stop in Grand Junction to get more ice.
Mr. Henderson told me that the railroad had two 14-inch-deep man-made reservoirs. One reservoir was near Pando, located near Camp Hale where the 10th Mountain Division, the 38th Regimental Combat Team, 99th Infantry Battalion, and soldiers from Fort Carson conducted mountain and winter warfare training exercises during World War II. The second reservoir was at Gore Pond above Kremmling.
Each winter, workers would flood the reservoirs. When the water was frozen, the ice harvest would begin. Among the tools used were jig saw, circular saw and large tongs. The men would cut the ice into large slabs, which were then floated through the water to a spot where they were plucked out, placed on a conveyor belt and planed into 300-pound ice blocks. These blocks were then loaded onto a rail car in layers of ice and sawdust and transported to Grand Junction, where they were transferred from rail car to the icehouse.
During World War II German prisoners of war being held on the Western Slope helped harvest the ice from Gore Pond while U.S. troops trained to the south at Camp Hale.
The last icehouse was demolished in 1972, and now the only remains of these once-bustling buildings are the foundations.
Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the Avalon Theatre, the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.