Ice sports bring us out on frozen lakes for the sheer pleasure of being there. But through the years, folks have traveled our “winterized” lakes and rivers for a number of more practical reasons such as visiting friends and relatives, or hauling food, hay, coal, firewood, furniture, logs, milk and just about everything else imaginable.
In the late 19th to the early 20th century, the term “bridge” was commonly used to refer to the ice which allowed for these crossings. Note the following report from the Plattsburgh Sentinel, 2 March 1923: “The ice bridge between Willsboro and Burlington is quite extensively used, many visiting the city for both profit and pleasure.”
Throughout the 1800s, horse-drawn sleds and stagecoaches carried paying passengers on regularly scheduled trips back and forth across Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont. As recently as 2010, when the worn Crown Point bridge had to be destroyed, folks again took advantage of the ice to commute across Lake Champlain to their jobs.
Milda Burns of North River said her father told her that from 1890 until 1930, he bridged the Hudson River by “brushing” it. This meant laying tree branches and twigs across a shallow part of the river to damn up the ice flowing downstream. In this way, ice built up to a depth sufficient to make a road strong enough to support horses and wagons crossing to the other side.
Ice crossings were also carried out for military reasons. By the 1600s, Indians, French Canadians and the English traversed Lake Champlain, most often to do battle with one another. One of the more famous crossings was that of Rogers’ Rangers, a British scouting force, which in the 1750s, retreated from the French by snowshoeing some thirty miles down the length of Lake George.
In 1870, Thomas H. Peacock accompanied his father on a trip from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake to bring supplies to several lumber camps. As the road would have been long and hilly, they cut the distance in half by traveling over the frozen Saranac Lakes, pulling a sled full of 25 to 30 bushels of potatoes, two or three quarters of beef, a large load of horse hay and eagerly anticipated mail. The trip took eighteen hours.
Loggers also followed frozen lake routes to shorten trips and bring logs out onto the ice where they were dumped and left waiting until spring. When the ice thawed, the timber was floated downriver to the sawmills.
An extraordinary variety of “freight” has been moved across the ice. Some folks still live year-round on road-inaccessible lakeshores or islands. In the winter, they must pull their groceries home using skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles.
Contractors and caretakers take advantage of the frozen lakes to move equipment and materials to road-inaccessible construction and camp sites. There was even an occasion in the early 1920s when rock-loaded sleds were pulled across Lake George by skaters holding sails, the stone used to rebuild the eroded shoreline of Dome Island. To reach remote ice fishing locations, sportsmen cross ice with snowmobiles, ATVs or trucks.
In earlier days the term “freight” included any number of things, not the least of which were houses! That moving buildings across the ice was not so unusual is demonstrated by a real estate advertisement found in the Essex County Republican of 10 September 1915 offering a 141′ long building which “could be moved over the ice to any point on the lake for trifling expense.”
Sometimes overlooked, ice serving as a bridge, has had a major influence on the North Country’s transportation history.
Caperton Tissot is the author of Adirondack Ice, a Cultural and Natural History, published by Snowy Owl Press.