Bangor men testified against ice monopoly

Posted Feb. 21, 2010, at 4:44 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

“SEASON IS NEAR. Ice Harvesting Will Commence in Short Time. IMPORTANT INDUSTRY. Gives Employment to Many Bangor Men … .” With this multitiered headline on Nov. 15, 1909, the Bangor Daily Commercial raised the hopes of Bangoreans once again that their ice industry might rebound after years of decline. The key line, however, was the last line: “American Co. May Not Cut This Season.”

The glory days of Maine’s export ice industry had ended with the 19th century. By 1910, ice harvesting was mainly a local industry for local use. Many of the big ice houses along the banks of the Penobscot River had either burned or fallen down.

The biggest harvests had been in the late 19th century when Maine ice was shipped far and wide. Now the much-reviled American Ice Co. was in control, using what many believed to be cutthroat monopoly practices. It cut ice on Maine rivers only if it couldn’t get enough on the Hudson River or by manufacturing it in ice ma-chines. It had virtually taken over the ice business in several major cities along the East Coast.

The American Ice Co. was on trial in New York that fall for violating anti-monopoly laws. Three prominent Bangor businessmen were scheduled to testify. One of them was Charles M. Stewart, treasurer and manager of the T.J. Stewart Co., a famous exporter of ice and other products, according to the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 12, 1909.

The prosecutor introduced Stewart to the court this way: “I want to show that the American Ice Company so tightened its grip on the ice market that even if this man towed an iceberg into New York harbor, he would not get a chance to sell a pound.” Stewart testified that where once there had been 200,000 tons of storage capac-ity in ice houses along the Penobscot River, there were only two left with a capacity of 60,000 tons because of the maneuvering of the American Ice Co.

Col. I.K. Stetson of E.&I.K. Stetson Co. had been called to testify on behalf of the ice company, but he ended up buttressing the state’s case, said the newspaper on Nov. 29. Stetson was supposed to say only that Maine ice could not be sold profitably in New York, but he added that the ice company had almost obliterated the Maine industry by its production of artificial ice. Because of manufactured ice, Maine ice could be sold in New York only when the Hudson crop was short. The contention of the state was that the Maine industry was destroyed by the trust so that it could control the prices in New York.

A third Bangor man scheduled to testify was Charles D. Stanford of the A.R. Hopkins Co., said the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 30. If he got on the stand, I have not found an account of his comments.

The president of the ice company tried to defend himself against the damage done by these men and other witnesses as reported by the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 8. Wesley M. Oler said he had tried to use Maine ice, but freight rates were too high to make a profit. He complained that bad publicity about pollution in river water had hurt the natural-ice business generally.

The court found the ice company guilty of restricting competition and attempting to create a monopoly and fined it $5,000, the maximum sentence, according to the story at the top of Page 1 of the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 11. The conviction marked “the first step in its ultimate dissolution,” claimed the headline. It wouldn’t be soon enough for an editorial writer at the newspaper who called the men behind the company “devoid of personal honor and undesirable citizens,” especially Charles W. Morse, the Bath man who had founded the “great iniquity.” Morse was in prison on an unrelated bank fraud conviction.

The court decision was not a cause for optimism, however. “Ice cutting on the Penobscot and the Kennebec is considered a thing of the past, if all reports are true from those who have charge of the American Ice Company in Maine,” said the lead on a story in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 13. “It is but a case of natural progres-sion,” said L.C. Ballard, the company’s Maine manager. “Natural ice cannot compete against artificial. … Today one-third of the ice used in New York City is artificial, while all of that consumed in Washington is a product of the machines, as is the greater portion of Philadelphia’s supply.”

The Penobscot and the Kenduskeag were still handy sources of ice for local people. It took about 30,000 tons to supply Bangor, and three local companies planned to harvest about 10,000 to 15,000 tons of ice that year, said the Commercial on Nov. 15, 1909. About 200 men would be employed.

One of the companies, Getchell Brothers, had built a new ice house on the north side of the Kenduskeag above Bullseye Bridge. The structure was 200 feet long and 60 feet wide with a capacity of 7,000 tons. “An elevator with an endless chain and a steam powered plant and an ice planer makes the Getchell plant one of the most up to date and practical,” said the newspaper.

The local companies were cutting ice by Jan. 15, 1910. George Webster had the contract to harvest above Bullseye Bridge on the Kenduskeag for the Eastern Steamship Co. He would ship it by trolley to the company’s ice houses on its Front Street wharf. J.F. Woodman Co. was taking ice from below Bullseye for markets and wholesale meat houses. The company would move above the bridge to cut a supply for the Bangor House.

Getchell Brothers would be cutting both on the stream and in the river opposite the Maine Central freight yards. “The reason for cutting a part of the ice in the stream and a part in the river is that many people object to the ice in the river for household use, and therefore the stream ice is cut for the local refrigerator supply. The river ice is used to supply the markets,” said the Commercial. People were becoming wary of the increasing amounts of sewage, industrial chemicals and sawmill waste that was being dumped in the river.

By mid-February 1910, the harvest was almost complete. The Bangor Ice Co. was cutting for S.A. Maxfield Co., a slaughterhouse on Valley Avenue, and for general use. The Citizen’s Ice Co. had finished cutting ice on the river above the dam for general consumption and would soon begin cutting a few hundred pounds for the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital.

Many of the stories about these activities ended with the same line: “As far as can be learned, the American Ice Co. will not cut on the Penobscot this season.” And then even these last, hopeful little nods to the past disappeared.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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