Alexandria's Ice Industry Was Big Business
Walking west along Cameron Street, people pass City Hall on the right before approaching Gadsby's Tavern on the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets. Gadsby's Tavern was originally known as the City Tavern and Hotel. After it was built in 1792, it was the five star, luxury hotel of its day. If anyone was looking to rub elbows with the movers and shakers in early America, Gadsby's was where you would find them. In fact, George Washington celebrated two birthday parties there in 1798 and 1799. Thomas Jefferson made two stops to the tavern in 1801. The roster of early American presidents also included John Adams and James Madison. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette came to Gadsby's Tavern as one stop during his grand return to the United States.
What made the tavern so popular?
One of the defining features of Gadsby's Tavern was (still is) its massive ice well. John Gadsby, who leased the tavern from property owner John Wise, began selling ice in the 1790s for eight cents a pound. As of September 2023, that equates to $1.86 per pound. That means 10 pounds of ice would have cost $18.60 in inflation adjusted dollars! This is a huge premium to the cost of ice today where Wal-Mart sells a 10-pound bag for $2- $3. Gadsby clearly controlled the market in the 1790s.
It is hard to believe, but the ice itself was harvested from the Potomac River. Last year, Alexandria was sprinkled with two light dustings of snow. If a business was counting on ice from the Potomac River for their inventory, they would have declared bankruptcy in 2022.
After being cut and transported from the Potomac River, the ice was packed in a deep well adjacent to Gadsby's Tavern. The ice well could hold up to 62 tons of ice. Doing a little quick math, 62 tons means that Gadsby stored about $230,640 worth of ice in the well next to the tavern. Not a bad asset on the balance sheet! The challenge must have been to get rid of the product before it all melted away.
There is no indication of how long the ice would stay in the well. It was kept below ground, densely packed together, and insulated with straw. The ice was lowered from a hatch above the well. Chunks of ice were chipped out of the 62 ton block and pulled from the well into the basement of the tavern.
Throughout the 19th Century, competitors entered the market as the demand for ice continued. While we might think that people wanted cold cocktails, chilled beer, and milkshakes, the needs were much more practical. Ice helped preserve perishable food items at a time when there were no refrigerators. Ice vendors served the local Alexandria community for many years. The suppliers rode in horse drawn carriages making deliveries to customers around town.
However, the big ice business exploded after the Civil War. One of the principal drivers was the railroads, which spurred interstate commerce. Ice became an essential means by which perishable food items as well as medication could be stored in boxcars on trains and shipped across multiple states. For example, fruits and vegetables grown in Florida could be transported to New York and Boston without spoiling.
One of Alexandria's most prominent ice businesses opened in 1874. It was founded by W.M. Reardon and F.A. Reid. Their success was driven by business with a major railroad known as the Southern Railway.
It was clearly a lucrative enterprise because competition soon entered the picture. A man named J.W. Hammond opened a rival business in 1880. After a decade of competition, Reardon bought out his partner Reid's share of their business. He then merged with J.W. Hammond. The two men formed the Mutual Ice Company, which was known as MICO.
By the dawn of the 20th Century, Alexandria had a full-scale industrialized commercial ice industry. Electricity was the second catalyst that powered Alexandria's ice industry. The days of simple harvesting ice on the Potomac River were replaced by electric powered machines. Giant ammonia ice compressors were used to mass produce ice. Ammonia was the most common material used in early refrigeration technology. It was first used as a refrigerant in the 1850s and the technology to make artificial ice with ammonia was patented in the U.S. in the 1860s.
Alexandria's position along the Potomac River has always been key to industry and commerce. The ice industry was no different. Numerous creeks and tributaries flow into the river and there is an abundant supply of fresh ground water. The Mutual Ice Company used four wells, which stretched 250 feet in depth. At its peak, Mutual Ice consumed one million gallons of water daily!
With an abundant water supply, electricity, and the railroads, Alexandria needed one more ingredient for a thriving ice industry. They needed hard working laborers that were willing to do the tough job of manufacturing ice, storing it, and then helping to load it into hundreds of railcars each day. By all accounts, the workers were not hard to find and the ice industry was a strong economic driver in the city.
The ice continued to serve the citizens of Alexandria throughout seven local service stations. Two of the seven stations are visible to this day on 110 S. Lee Street and 200 Commerce Street. A third location at 319 N. Alfred Street is now a private residence. Beyond the local demand for ice, Alexandria continued to serve railway customers. Potomac Yard railway center was an important hub for interstate commerce. It was a geographically important location since it was located halfway along the East Coast. A historical plaque at the old Potomac Yard reads as follows:
At its peak, Mutual Ice loaded 700 tons of ice onto 500 cars each day. However, the onset of refrigerated cars in the 1950s made icing obsolete and Mutual Ice closed its doors in 1969.
It is impressive that the company stayed operational until 1969. As refrigeration technology developed, the Mutual Ice Company made several attempts to pivot their business. An article in the Gazette Packet by Michael McMorrow explains, "MICO directed its efforts to servicing cooling equipment and even expanded into the fuel oil and burner business." Nevertheless, these businesses were not as successful, and Mutual Ice Company finally closed its doors in 1969.
Today, ice manufacturing is not a big business in Alexandria. Nevertheless, ice continues to drive the economy in the historic port city principally in the form of Alexandria's many ice cream shops. Tourists flock to these locations up and down King Street especially in the heat of the summer.
It is possible that Alexandria has more ice cream shops concentrated into one area than any other city in the country. On the 100 block of King Street, The Creamery and Pop's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Co. are directly across from one another. Walking further east along King Street, there is Kilwins Chocolates & Ice Cream. Turn right onto N. Fairfax Street, Dolci Gelati serves excellent ice cream! Right across from Dolci Gelati is Market Square where people will go relax and enjoy fresh scoops as the sun goes down.
As you walk further east along King Street, there is a new milkshake bar and ice cream shop that opened called The Crazy Mason. Turning left off King to Patrick Street, people will see Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, which is always popular. Finally, two blocks from Patrick Street, turn left and walk to 200 Commerce Street. The old Mutual Ice service station has been fully re-developed into Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats.
While industrial ice manufacturing is no longer big business, Alexandria's ice economy is not frozen in time. The legacy continues to this day in the heart of Old Town. At Alexandria History Tours, we are excited to promote this legacy by encouraging our guests to indulge in a sweet treat after one of our professionally guided walking tours. Specifically, we have a partnership with Dolci Gelati in which Alexandria History Tour customers can show their tickets and receive 10% off their in-store purchase. Now that's pretty cool!
Check out the map below to see where you can participate in Alexandria's modern day ice cream economy. Hope you have a sweet tooth!
The Creamery, 110 King St
Pop's Old Fashion Ice Cream Co, 109 King St
Kilwins Chocolates & Ice Cream, 212 King St
Dolci Gelati, 107 N Fairfax St
The Crazy Mason Milkshake Bar Old Town Alexandria, 716 King St
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, 102 S Patrick St
Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, 200 Commerce St