At one point, Sandusky was the largest American producer of ice west of the Hudson River. The ice blocks men harvested from Sandusky Bay were shipped as far as New Orleans, said James Miller, history chair of the city’s bicentennial celebration.
“About 25 percent of all able bodied men in the city participated in the ice harvest,” Miller said in a phone interview. “In the 1880s and 1890s, it was an event when it was ice harvest time. Companies would shut down for a few days.”
The city’s ice harvesting past – as well as its importance as a port, lumber harvester, fish capital and finally tourism destination – will be celebrated this year during the city’s bicentennial. The calendar of events includes historic discussions, walking tours and exhibits on the Underground Railroad, financier Jay Cooke, Masons and more.
The name Sandusky is probably derived from the Wyandot phrase “San Too Chee,” which means “at the cold water.”
Like much of the Western Reserve, the first Europeans were trappers and hunters. And as settlers moved west into Ohio, Sandusky became a stop for ships sailing from Buffalo to Detroit. The harbor expanded and soon harvesting hardwood trees became a major industry, with lumber mills and yards along the shoreline.
The lumber was shipped out on boats, as were barrels of fish.
The earliest commercial fishing in Ohio began during the 1830s in Sandusky Bay, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Fishermen used a seine, a large bag-shaped net dropped in the water from a rowboat, and then dragged ashore.
At one point Sandusky was the largest freshwater fishing market on the planet, Miller said.
And then there was the ice.
When the lake froze at least 8 inches thick, ice men went to work. Sanduskians retrieved about 400,000 tons of ice each winter and stored it in 50 sheds along the shore.
Here’s how it worked, Miller said:
- Men went out on the ice with horse-drawn scrapers, similar to a road grater, which cleared off loose ice and snow.
- Crews harvested ice as they went, making sure they could walk back to town.
- A horse dragged an ice plow that had spikes like a checkerboard, 2 feet by 4 feet.
- Men hand chopped a hole in the corner of each checker, then two men on a saw would cut on big ice cakes.
- Men with poles would float the cakes along water channels to the shore.
- Conveyor belts would move the blocks up into ice houses, big barns with sawdust insulation between walls of wood.
- The ice could last up to three years inside.
As many as 500 train cars full of ice departed Sandusky each day during ice season, which began to die out in the 1910s and ended in 1941, Miller said.
The three main industries – wood, fish and ice – supported each other, as well as side industries. Wood was needed to build boats, and for barrels to ship the fish. About 10 pounds of ice was need for each barrel.
“All of these industries were interrelated,” Miller said. “Sandusky was a pretty contained area.”
Limestone was the other big business, at least until after World War II, when auto manufacturing moved into town.
Fishing is still a major business. But now that manufacturing jobs are disappearing, tourism has taken over as Sandusky’s dominant industry.
People have been vacationing in Sandusky even since before 1870, when Cedar Point opened. They took boats to the Erie Islands and even gawked at the former Confederate prison on Johnson’s Island. An 1898 book mentioned visitors to South Bass Island would drink Budweiser and island wines.
But tourism has taken on even more importance in the last decade, as the city became a year-round destination with a cluster of indoor water parks.
“A lot of time it goes back to Cedar Point. If you’ve got traffic, you’ve got opportunity,” Miller said. “People will grouse about the traffic, but they need to embrace it because that’s what they got. Tourism is generating the economy.”