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The Day Ice Turned to Fire in Green Lane
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2020-05-27

            Shortly before and after the turn of the 20th Century, the ice industry reigned right up there with the cigar-making industry in providing hundreds of jobs in our

The Hancock plant in Green Lane was one of the

largest in the area.  It was 310 feet long, 90 feet wide,

three stories high, and had the capacity to hold 25,000

tons of ice.

region.

            It was big business and they needed big icehouses.  Giant brown or white buildings housed the frozen franchises that kept Philadelphia on ice long before the Organized Crime Commission. These huge structures were needed to hold enough ice to supply a city whose Schuylkill and Delaware river waters lay polluted by the factories of the Industrial Revolution.

            These gargantuan commercial icehouses had large inclines that stretched into the water resembling creek-side dinosaurs quenching their thirst.  Two area assets helped them thrive in upper Montgomery County:  close proximity to the exceptional waters of our many pristine creeks and access to the railroad.

            Dam breaches and breaks caused serious damage to the local ice industry, 

On March 30, 1907, the icehouse burned to the ground. 

All that was left was a mountain of ice.  Without a local

fire company, workers and neighbors fought the flames

with a bucket-brigade, ferrying water from the Perkio-

men Creek and nearby wells.

but it was fire that could quickly turn the huge icehouses into ashes and the product inside into a blackened iceberg. 

            The Hancock plant in Green Lane was one of the largest in the area.  It encompassed two dams that covered a total of 45 acres and one icehouse.  The icehouse was over 310 feet long, 90 feet wide and three stories high.  It had the capacity to hold 25,000 tons of ice.

            The Hancock plant was conveniently located on the Perkiomen Creek next to the Green Lane train station,  roughly across the old railroad bed from where the Green Lane-Marlborough sewer plant is located today.

            The winter of 1907 was a particularly prosperous one for the local ice companies.  Heralded as one of the largest harvests in many years, a reported 350,000 tons of the frozen product was loaded in the local icehouses. 

Workers at the Hancock icehouse in Green Lane had temporarily ceased harvesting ice on March 30, 1907 because the icehouse was filled to capacity.  They turned their attention to loading several boxcars on the railroad siding next to the icehouse.  Shortly before noon, locomotive Engine No. 846 fired up its boiler and pulled the boxcars away from the siding for a trip down the Perkiomen branch of the railroad.

            Soon after the train left the icehouse, young Howard Long, who lived nearby,

The fire was believed to have started when a steam

engine, built to burn hard coal, was burning soft

coal without the proper spark-arresting device instal-

led. The Hancock Ice Company sued the railroad...

saw flames coming from the roof of the structure.  A newspaper account reported that "the flames spread with startling rapidity and by the time the boy's shouts had attracted assistance it was apparent the building was doomed". 

            Workers and neighbors under the direction of Plant Superintendent James Smith formed a bucket brigade to ferry water from the Perkiomen Creek and nearby wells.  The fire burned out of control for several hours until only a smoky mountain of ice, sawdust and ash remained.  The loss was estimated at $35,000.  The property was only partially insured.  Though they couldn't save the building, the makeshift fire brigade was credited with saving a neighboring home, stable and the railroad-bridge.

            After a bit of detective work on the part of Hancock Company officials, they learned that the locomotive they believed started the fire at the icehouse was responsible for several other fires around the same time.  Hancock sued the Philadelphia Railroad Company in Montgomery County Court to recover their loss.

           During the court appearance, it was proven that for a period of time before and after the Hancock fire, Engine No. 846 had emitted large pieces of burning cinders measuring from the size of a cherry stone to a five-cent piece.  It was also proven that those ashes started other fires along the railroad bed around that same time. 

            Hancock lawyers were able to show the court that the engine was built in 1888 as a hard coal burning locomotive.  They contended that the engine was burning soft coal, and the spark-arresting device installed on the engine was not equipped with a spark hopper as required for soft coal burning.

            Without any rebuttal to the accusation from railroad attorney Montgomery Evans, and to the surprise of everyone, the judge upon his own volition ruled "as a matter of law" that the spark-arresting device was sufficient. 

            After being instructed by the judge to ignore the key evidence regarding Engine No. 846, the jury returned a decision in favor of the railroad.  Needless to say, Hancock lawyers were quick to file an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court claiming the judge made a mistake when he decided to keep the jury from considering the differences in the hoppers.

            In March of 1909 the Commonwealth Supreme Court ruled in favor of the

A new icehouse was built on the same location before

the next ice harvesting season but the court battle would

last until 1909 when the Hancock Ice Company finally

won their suit against the railroad.

John Hancock Ice Company and granted them a new trial.  The same judge presided over this trial. 

            However, this time the jury was permitted to consider the evidence, and this time they ruled in favor of the John Hancock Ice Company.  They were awarded $28,080.25 in damages from the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

 


 

 

 

 

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