Historic Houses of the Month Frederic Tudor and Charlestown’s Ice Trade

It’s hard to imagine, but in the early 19th century there were 14 wharfs along the Charlestown waterfront extending along the shoreline of Charles River Bay just below Town Hill, all the way to the Navy Yard.  There were an additional 5 wharfs on the northeast side of the peninsula along the Mystic River. The Charlestown waterfront was bustling with shipping commerce following the reconstruction of the town. The ships that sailed from Charlestown to distant ports carried goods such as granite, coal, cattle, bricks and hops, but the most important cargoes to leave Charlestown were lumber and ice. 

The most famous shipper of ice, known as Boston’s “Ice King”, was Frederic Tudor (1783-1864) son of Judge William Tudor, a wealthy Boston attorney and prominent citizen who had been Judge Advocate of the Continental Army providing legal advice to George Washington. William’s father Deacon John Tudor, a baker by trade, immigrated to Boston from Devon, England 1715. Being privileged, Frederic and his older brothers William and John Henry were afforded the luxury of traveling to Cuba in February 1801 with $1000 in travel money provided by their father. While the older brother William was an intellectual and graduate of Harvard College, Frederic was a different sort, dropping out of Boston Latin School at the age of 13, preferring to become an apprentice in a retail establishment much to his mother’s dismay. Frederic turned his attention to the business world at a young age.

Several years after the trip to Cuba, the brothers hatched a plan. The family had two country estates north of Boston. They owned a 75 acre farm in Hull that later became the Nahant Golf Club, as well as a country estate in Lynn (now Saugus) known as Rockwood. Ice had been harvested from the ponds and lakes of New England since colonial times. Like many wealthy families, the Tudors had long harvested blocks of ice between January and March from a pond at Rockwood, storing it in an ice house on the property. Several years following the trip, Frederic Tudor entered the following in his newly acquired “Ice House Diary”:  “Plan etc for transporting Ice to Tropical Climates.  Boston Augst 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.”  

In November 1805, William traveled to Martinique to find buyers for the first shipment and to establish a suitable location for an icehouse. In 1806 the brigantine Favorite was loaded at Gray’s Wharf in Charlestown with 130 tons of ice that had been cut from the pond at Rockwood. The Boston Gazette reported, “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique.  We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.” With Frederic Tudor accompanying his cargo, the maiden voyage turned out to be a disaster. Although the ice survived the journey in fair shape, the residents of Martinique had no interest in this frozen wonder.  William had not found a buyer for their precious cargo, nor had he a found a location for an icehouse. The brothers returned to Boston.

The following year the brigantine Trident sailed to Havana, again from Gray’s Wharf, loaded with 240 tons of ice.  In Cuba, the brothers were granted a monopoly by the Spanish government, which was a coup.

The genius of the Tudor ice shipping scheme centered on three simple principles. First, the ice was free and was harvested locally from Fresh Pond, Walden Pond and other ponds and lakes in the area.  The only cost was the labor to cut the blocks.  Secondly, after much trial and error, Frederic discovered that layering sawdust between the blocks of ice provided the best insulation for the journey. Sawdust was the byproduct of the local sawmills, again free.  Lastly, ships often left Boston Harbor empty, heading to the West Indies to pick up exotic produce and goods. Filling the holds with Tudor ice for the voyage south allowed Tudor to negotiate better shipping prices. 

The early years of the ice shipping business were fraught with problems. William returned to academia and spent time traveling in Europe, but Frederic persevered. He did not turn a profit until 1810. The losses were mounting and his personal debt was escalating.  In 1812 and 1813 he spent time in debtor’s prison.  But in 1825 the invention of a horse drawn metal bladed saw by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth revolutionized the cutting of the ice, and proved to be a boon to the business.

By 1833, Frederic again was almost bankrupt. Fortuitously, Frederic formed a partnership with Boston merchant Samuel Austin for selling ice to India. Austin already had a fleet of ships sailing regularly to Calcutta. On May 12, 1833, the brig Tuscany sailed 16,000 miles to Calcutta, a journey that took four month.  Upon arrival, they still had 100 tons of the original 180 tons. India would become Tudor’s most lucrative destination for years to come.

The business that began by shipping 130 tons of ice in 1806, 50 years later shipped 363 cargoes consisting of 146,000 tons of ice. The destinations that year included Charleston, Savannah, Key West, New Orleans, Galveston, Havana, Saint John’s, Barbados, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Ceylon, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore, Manilla, Canton and Australia, among many others.

At some point, Austin’s Wharf, contiguous to the Charles River Bridge was renamed Tudor Wharf.  At the time of his death at 81 in 1864, Tudor was worth $12,000,000, about $190,000,000 in today’s dollar.  While there were other ice shippers, Tudor was the most successful, an innovator way ahead of his time. The heyday of the ice trade in Charlestown was between 1830 and 1870.

Note:  Currently the Marriot sits on Tudor Wharf. In 1994, the wharf was occupied by the abandoned Rapid’s Furniture Warehouse, when a nine-alarm fire broke out that took the life of Boston firefighter Lt. Stephen Minehan while trying to save fellow firefighters.  Six others were injured in the blaze.

Sources: Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, Wikipedia, Ice in the Tropics: The Export of “Chrystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness, to India and Brazil by Marc Herold, BBC, History.com, Waymaking.com, The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman

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