Ice Plant Remains

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 5:00pm

We used to start school the Monday after Labor Day. It was long one of those impossible memories, but underscored by another, of the first year we started on the Friday after the holiday, a half day.

That and more memories came rushing back when I heard the announcement that all schools in Rhode Island would start on August 31, especially one year losing our only built-in “snow” day, when we stayed home to weather a hurricane that never quite hit us. It was Donna, in 1960, and it brushed past on September 12, the second Monday of the month.

We were still living in a sort of hurricane trauma in 1960, grown from the unexpected behemoth of 1938, a bump in 1944 and the three bruising sisters of the early fifties, most notable Carol with gusts on Block Island recorded to 135 mph, breaking past records.

1938 is always the gold standard against which all other storms are measured. It came with virtually no warning, tore across Long Island and pushed a ship onto the railroad tracks in New London. Here, it was devastating, especially to the fishing fleet, as well as old barns and orchards, less tended as fortunes waned. Still, the question remains, was less lost in 1954 only because so much had already blown away sixteen years earlier?

1938 did ravage not only the fleet, it tore through the ice plant at the Old Harbor, a staple of serious fish sales and export businesses. The ocean broke the cement block walls, shifted the interior mechanics, and poured out the other side, still not quite making it to the freight office in space now occupied by Finn’s, only “to the deck” the owner wrote the next day.

The squat block building was a plant where ice was manufactured, not a shed by a pond when “pure lake ice” was cut in deep winer and stored in layers of sawdust and hay, for use in summer. I do not know if it was still operable just before the hurricane, but there was a fleet and there were fish markets on both sides of the harbor.

Since April I have been looking more carefully at a pile of old photographs, seeing things I had never before noticed, especially in after the 1938 storm captures: that the seaward side of Ballard’s main building extended much further to the east than it did in later years; a rather uninspiring photo of the National in fact showed a tear in the roof where the cupola had sat (today’s is a replica, lifted and set in place in 1984); and that the photos of the ice plants are not just from slightly different angles, they are from different times.

I remember only a black stack rising from the sandy grasses where the parking lot is today, a remnant. It seemed quite tall but I was little, which I attribute to my confusion; the earlier photo, undated but carefully noted “Ice Plant at Old Harbor” shows only a battered cement block building, its interior exposed, with nothing rising from where the roof would have been.

It is in the second, with only a corner of the building remaining, that what I recall is visible, that black stack that was explained only as the Old Ice Plant, as though that was all there was to it.

What surprised me more than anything, and only after a careful comparison, was that the photos are so obviously from different times, and that in the later, the sand around the wreckage is more storm tossed and covered with water. So much more of the building and its mechanical interior is gone it seems it has to have been the aftermath of Hurricane Carol in 1954 but the front street simply did not change during that time frame, providing no references.

These old photos have never been put in albums, probably for the best I am now realizing, nor have they ever been organized in any real fashion. Most of my mother’s are properly notated; the series of 1938 came from elsewhere but are all written up in the same hand; others offer nothing. Over time I have retained some knowledge of them from so often seeing the images while I am flipping though the stack, looking for another I think I saw once.

Only today, looking yet again at the second shot did I realize it shows a pipe, propped up on a cinder block, dark liquid spewing from its end, likely some rudimentary gerry-rigged system pumping the debris of the storm that had landed in the Old Harbor, mainly sand and Ballard’s dining hall, again, no clue to the date, it happened more than once.

Perhaps, it was an attempt at building up the sandy expanse in preparation for the next, inevitable storm.