Iced over: Crossing the Hudson in winter before the bridges were built


Though small in stature, Lloyd Plass took big risks – risks in business, with his own safety and, most assuredly, with the safety of others. During the 1920s, Plass, a Highland resident, came to the conclusion that it would be a sound business decision to invest in and represent the Rickenbacker automobile company in the Hudson Valley. Taking its name from the famed World War I flying ace, the stylized Rickenbacker automobile reflected the flamboyance of the era. As sales of the car failed to match expectations, however, Plass – according to his nephew Jon Decker – sought a different way not only to draw local attention to the Rickenbacker, but also to enhance his income. As a result, a new taxi service was introduced: one that would transport passengers in style from Highland to Poughkeepsie.

So where was the risk? The taxi service offered by Plass, at a time before bridges spanned the Hudson, would operate during the winter. In short, passengers would be driven across the expanse of ice that separated the two shores. Easing his Rickenbacker onto the frozen waterway near where Mariner’s Harbor is today, Plass would negotiate his way across Mr. Hudson’s frozen waterway to the opposite shore.

For the most part, his excursions proved uneventful. The Hudson, however, is not without surprises during the winter as currents, tides and temperature work their way with the ice. So it was that the law of averages eventually caught up with Plass and, as family lore has it, his Rickenbacker broke through the ice one day about 100 yards off the Poughkeepsie shore. While passengers and Plass emerged unharmed, somewhere at the bottom of the Hudson lies a monument representative of the trials and tribulations of our all-too-human efforts to traverse the Hudson River during the depths of winter.

Today, multiple bridges span the Hudson, permitting easy crossing (relatively speaking) between the two shores. Locomotives hug the eastern bank of the river moving passengers and goods up and down the Hudson corridor while, on the river, winter shipping moves through a deepened channel maintained by powerful ice-cutters. And yet, long before technology and engineering began to remove barriers posed by a frozen river, traveling the Hudson during the depths of winter was not as limited as one might think.

First, of course, to venture on to the Hudson during winters of yesteryear, one essential ingredient was required: a completely frozen river. And, from winter to winter, there were no guarantees. Records offered by the National Weather Service that draw upon the 18th-century diary of Kingston’s Colonel Hasbrouck attest to the fickle nature of the Hudson from December through March. During the winter of 1740/41, for example, Hasbrouck recorded that the ice on the Hudson lasted long enough that “We rode over Hudson’s river with horses and sleighs to the 20th of March.” During the winter of 1754/55, however, the reverse is offered, as “Troop ships sailed from New York to Albany in January and February.” Approximately 100 years later, as reported by the Rockland Messenger, ice on the river in 1856 didn’t “move” until April 6, while 1870 countered with the waterway “open all winter…steamer Connecticut made nine trips to Troy after January 20th.” Five years later, ice on the river reportedly measured 11 inches thick and finally “moved on March 30.”

While a frozen Hudson denied opportunity to those vessels that, over the years, would glide through its waters, the passage of people, goods and services transitioned to other forms of transportation once winter’s icy grip took hold – from walking to horsedrawn sleighs and, yes, even to automobiles. Prior to the age of ice-cutters carving a clear channel for shipping, it was not uncommon simply walk to across the river.

Native Americans were the river’s first “pedestrians” once the river froze, while also finding added value in its icy waters. Weighing their canoes down with large stones, they would sink their vessels offshore during winter in an effort to preserve their canoes till spring.

As towns and villages developed along the banks of the river, colonists also crisscrossed the span of ice that connected the two shores. According to a 1785 entry in Colonel Hasbrouck’s diary, “Men walked upon the ice until the 9th of April.” Even as late as 1912, as noted in the Tarrytown Press-Record, it was estimated that walking across the river took about an hour, while those on skates “found no difficulty in crossing in 13 minutes.”

Such excursions, however, were not without their risks. In the latter part of the 19th century, as offered in a history of the Saugerties lighthouse by the Saugerties Times, lighthouse-keeper Kate Crowley noticed a couple attempting to cross to Tivoli fall through the ice. “Kate spotted them and quickly dragged her boat across the ice as her sister Ellen pushed from the stern.” While Crowley was able to rescue the man in rather short order, “his companion was nowhere to be seen.” Finally, “Kate glimpsed a bit of her dress and realized she was trapped under the ice floe. Kate immediately dived into the water and dragged the woman from danger.”

By and large, the predominant form of transportation once ice closed the river to shipping was the horsedrawn sleigh. Most famous of all winter crossings is found in the saga of Colonel Henry Knox, who, along with his troops, made an almost impossible trek across the waterway during the early days of the Revolution. Following the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Knox was commanded by George Washington to transport some 60 tons of artillery captured at Ticonderoga east to Boston during the winter of 1775/76. Having to attempt multiple crossings while battling snow and, at times, thin ice (at one point, near Albany, the colonel and his men resorted to pouring water on the ice in an effort to strengthen it) Knox, utilizing some 42 sleds, eventually completed his journey by the end of January, taking ten weeks to reach Washington in Cambridge.

In later years, as winter took hold and heavy snows and drifts burdened those who traveled along still-developing roads, the ice of the frozen river often offered the prospect of easier – and quicker – transport by sleigh. Such, for example, was case of the US Mail. In the 1830s, having secured control of mail service on both sides of the river, Erastus Beach and his son Charles (eventual proprietor of the Catskill Mountain House) would abandon their usual land routes during winter “for the smooth ice and straightaway course” provided by the Hudson.                 Reflecting on the history of the river in 1905, the Kingston Daily Freeman noted that, during the winter of 1836/37, sleighs carrying mail moved over the ice between Poughkeepsie and Albany for almost four months. And, in an effort to ensure continuous operation, Beach established “tavern shanties and relay stables” in the middle of the river approximately every 15 miles.

Beach was not the only entrepreneur who saw river ice as opportunity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Up and down the river, countless numbers of icehouses, both large and small, dotted the shoreline for the purpose of storing ice cut from the Hudson for use in warmer months. The cutting, storage and shipping of ice eventually grew to become a major industry in the Hudson Valley, employing thousands during January and February. Estimates indicate that, at its height, some 20,000 laborers were required to maintain the various components of the industry.

Thus, when a hard winter freeze failed to materialize, the lack of income dramatically impacted the lives of seasonal workers and their families. In addition, as the power of the major ice companies grew – in ways not dissimilar to the corporate trusts emblematic of the era – both laborers and consumers found themselves at the mercy of ever-greedy “ice conglomerates.” In 1891, for example, some 300 workers went on strike as wages were cut below that of the previous year. And in New York City, residents and businesses who relied on ice shipped downriver saw the cost of 100 pounds of ice double over the course of a year, from 25 to 50 cents.

And yet, for many, a frozen Hudson was not simply a resource that sustained various business enterprises. The beauty and enticement of the river in winter were also a source of recreation, enjoyment and even romance. Wrapped in furs and blankets, sleighs took to the ice much in the same way that motorists would later pile into the family car for a Sunday drive. Clermont Livingston, for example – patriarch of the Livingston estate in the mid-1800s – was particularly found of sleighing. While noting in his diary in February 1859 that “Sleighs still cross to Saugerties,” sleighing for Livingston “meant plenty of fresh air and family and freedom of travel that didn’t depend on following roads.” (Clermont Historic Site)

The joy of the ice was further echoed by 19th-century historian Benson John Lossing in his work, The Hudson from the Wilderness to the Sea. In an 1866 description of the frozen river, Lossing observed, “The Hudson was bridged with strong ice; skaters, ice-boats and sleighs traversed the smooth surface of the river with perfect safety as far down to Peek’s Kill Bay.” Further intrigued by the lure of the ice and the excitement that it attracted, Lossing took obvious pleasure in noting, “Men, women and boys were enjoying the rare exercise with the greatest pleasure. Fun, pure fun, ruled the hour.”

Legend and lore are also associated with the Hudson’s frozen history. Such is the story of how Pollepel Island (familiar to many today as Bannerman’s Island) got its name. While various explanations have been offered as to the actual origins of the name, a momentary suspension of disbelief by the romantics among us can only favor the story of Polly Pell, the Reverend Vernon (Polly’s betrothed) and the true love of her life, Guert Brinkerhoff.

While sleighing on the river with her intended, the ice gave way, plunging Polly and the reverend into the freezing waters. Having warned them earlier of the dangers, Brinkerhoff was not far behind. Risking his own life, Brinkerhoff managed to rescue both, eventually leading them to a small island in the distance. In Polly’s expression of gratitude to Guert, Vernon recognized that her true affections lay not with him but with Brinkerhoff. Releasing her from her pledge, it is said that the reverend married the couple then and there, on an island in the middle of a frozen Hudson: an island thereafter known as Pollepel Island.

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  1. Reading through Mr. Heppner’s article on crossing the Hudson in winter via an ice covering reminded me of my father’s (born in late 1899) telling me that he had driven a fish truck across the river north of Poughkeepsie, thus confirming the truth of a tale for which I had had some doubts. I can now assuredly state that my father never lied to me; I already knew that his advice was always solid.

  2. While this makes total sense to me, I have never given this precarious form of travel any thought ’til now.
    Great read, Richard, keep ’em coming!

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