Excerpt from The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Frozen Water Trade

A True Story

by Gavin Weightman

The Frozen Water Trade
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2003, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2004, 288 pages

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The first entry in the diary, written in Frederic's spidery hand, reads: "Plan etc for transporting Ice to Tropical Climates. Boston August 1st 1805 William and myself have this day determined to get together what property we have and embark in the undertaking of carrying ice to the West Indies the ensuing winter." There is a note written later to the effect that William was not very enthusiastic, and had to be persuaded that it was worth giving the venture a try.

A Tudor family legend had it that it was, in the first place, William's idea. It would have been typical of him, as he was full of hare-brained schemes that came to nothing, and in his privately published autobiography, Early Recollections, Robert Gardiner remembered William, at a picnic, suggesting selling ice to the West Indies. To the end of his life, Frederic disputed this, and maintained that it was his inspiration. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was without doubt Frederic who took the idea seriously, and who dedicated his life to making it work.

The second entry in the diary is for August 12. Frederic writes that he is off on a trip with his cousin James Savage to visit Niagara Falls, and expects to return in October. In the meantime, he and William had been laying plans for the shipment of ice that winter. They had realized they would need substantial financial backing, and hoped they might be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to grant them a monopoly in the trade, for once everyone in Boston saw how profitable the shipping of ice was, there would be immediate and damaging competition.

Puffed up with youthful enthusiasm and naïveté, Frederic could not imagine that such a brilliant scheme could fail to make him and his brother a fortune. His excitement leaps from the pages of his diary as he drafts a letter to a business associate of his father, Harrison Gray Otis, a distinguished Bostonian and U.S. senator:

Sir, In a country where at some seasons of the year the heat is almost unsupportable, where at times the common necessary of life, water, cannot be had but in a tepid state--Ice must be considered as out doing most other luxuries.

Frederic's escape from Havana in the blazing June heat four years before with brother John Henry, only to find Charleston, South Carolina, no better, was clearly in his mind. He would have given anything for a lump of Rockwood ice when he felt the heat of Cuba that summer. But there remained the question of whether ice would last the voyage to tropical waters. Frederic had thought about this, and believed he had come across a good deal of evidence that ice could be preserved at sea. His letter to Otis continued: However absurd Sir the idea may at first appear that ice can be transported to tropical climates and preserved there during the most intemperate heats, yet for the following reasons does appear to me certain that the thing can be done and also to a profit beyond calculation.

The evidence with which he hoped to persuade Otis to take a stake in the business was, to say the least, patchy, and in retrospect a little puzzling. For example, he had it on good authority that an American sea captain had shipped ice from Norway to London in a year when a mild winter had led to a shortage of ice in England. It is true that by the end of the eighteenth century, English fishermen had begun using ice to preserve their catches, but there is no record of any ice shipments from Norway to England before 1822. And even if they had been made, Frederic could have had no idea how the ice would have been preserved onboard.

As if to prove definitively that his scheme was not absurd, Frederic told Otis that he had also heard from a French friend of his family that ice cream had been carried from England to Trinidad in pots packed in earth and sand. He had also been told--this time by a French gentleman, further evidence of his mother's Francophile tendencies--that timber boards shipped in winter from New England still had ice on them when they were unloaded in the West Indies, the only instance that gentleman knew of ice being seen in that part of the world. Frederic had also been told that it had been "experimentally proved" that ice could be preserved in Carolina, a southern state with a summer climate "as intemperate as most of the West Indies." He supposed that wherever you were in the world, if you dug a hole in the ground you would soon reach cool earth, which would keep ice much longer than if it were left on the surface. It was some time before he learned that this assumption was false.

From The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman. Copyright 2003 by Gavin Weightman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Hyperion Publishing.

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