Ypsilanti used to have horses that could walk on water. They pulled a plow over the surface of the Huron River. Men with long saws watched, waiting their turn to work.
From the late 19th century until the winter of 1922, the Michigan Central railroad maintained an ice-cutting station just northeast of Ypsilanti, behind today’s St. Joseph Hospital near an old gravel pit called Shanghai Pit.
In winter, the railroad hired men to cut ice from the river. Horses pulling a sort of plow scraped lines on the ice, which were then cut into blocks with hand-saws. The blocks were floated to shore, pushed by men with long pikes. Each 12 to 15-inch-thick block weighed well over a hundred pounds.
For decades, it was dangerous and exhausting work, until in 1920 Ypsilantian Charles McKie had an idea.
33-year-old McKie was a self-employed interior decorator. According to his WWI draft card, he was tall and slender, with blue eyes and brown hair. He painted and decorated the interiors of Ypsilanti offices. McKie owned a home at 213 Huron, where he lived with his wife Dee and his mother Martha. It was a nice neighborhood. One next door neighbor was Normal school music professor and violinist A. J. Whitmire. Nearby lived pastor Harvey Colburn, who would soon write the book for which he is remembered today, “The Story of Ypsilanti.”
McKie was friends with Lee Dawson, who with other family members ran the Martin Dawson Company, which dealt in hay, grain, seeds, coal, and building and painting supplies. Dawson had the contract for cutting ice for the MCRR.
McKie’s idea took him to the Wiedman auto dealership on Pearl Street, at the present-day bus station. He obtained four old Model Ts. The body of each car was cut off and the wheels removed, leaving just the gas engines and the drivetrains to the back axle. McKie mounted each engine on a wooden frame with sled runners. Where the rear wheels had been, McKie mounted two 48-inch-wide saw blades.
The Model Ts were now ice saws.
Transported to Shanghai Pit, they roared into life, with a racketing 4-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine and a swoosh of ice dust thrown up by the blade. They worked so well that although McKie had made four, the ice harvesters only needed one to get the work done. A wooden frame supporting what appears in a photo to be a leather screen was added where the windshield had been, to shield the operator from flying chips of ice.
Pushed to shore, the ice blocks traveled up a wooden ramp on a conveyor belt powered by a steam engine Dawson had rented. They were stored in the railroad’s Ypsilanti ice houses along the Huron and loaded onto boxcars for storage in the railroad’s ice-house in Detroit. Stored in sawdust for insulation, the blocks were used to cool boxcars. ‘The Michigan Central Railroad Company is filling its ice houses at Ypsilanti with fine ice from Shanghai Pond,” said the February 1910 issue of Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal. “It is 15 inches thick.”
Some of the ice likely was used in Ypsilanti as well. Around the turn of the century, about half of American households had ice boxes. These small wooden cabinets lined with tin or zinc had a storage space for a block of ice and shelves on which to keep food cool. Ypsilantians who couldn’t afford an ice box and the regular home delivery of ice blocks about twice a week could store food in a cool cellar, or do without.
Although the MCRR’s ice harvesting site was upstream of the Peninsular Paper mill, another paper mill near modern-day Superior Road, and the factory waste and other waste that was drained into the river at Ypsilanti, there are hints that the Huron River ice was polluted. The MCRR claimed that it only used northern Michigan ice for consumption in its dining cars. It used Ypsi ice only to cool boxcars.
In 1919, train inspectors were alarmed to see the quality of Ypsilanti water. “[G]overnment inspectors of a train passing through Ypsilanti saw water running from a hose at the Michigan Central Gardens,” says the July 24 Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The men tested the water for purity. “The test was very bad and orders were immediately issued forbidding use of Ypsilanti [city] water.” Later, the inspectors found that the hose was not drawing city water, which came from a well, but polluted river water near a sewer outlet.
Demand for clean ice drove the creation of artificial ice-making factories. In 1906, Wyandotte’s Eureka Brewing Company began manufacturing artificial ice. In 1909, Ann Arbor founded the Artificial Ice Co. Detroit’s General Ice Delivery Co. and other Detroit companies began making ice. In 1918, the Wyandotte Ice Company followed. In 1919, the Ypsi Pure Ice Co. advertised in the Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The ad read, “Our new artificial ice plant is now in operation and we are prepared to supply ice to all consumers in Ypsilanti and vicinity.”
Artificial ice was clean, could be made in precise sizes, and could be made year-round without reliance on unpredictable weather. Except for isolated rural areas far from artificial ice plants, the age of ice harvesting was over.
Perhaps Charles might have made a business out of building and shipping his ice saw to Northern ice harvesting sites. Soon after the collapse of local ice harvesting, his own life took a downturn. He and Dee divorced. She remained in the Huron House, apparently alone: there is no census record of their having had children.
McKie eventually moved into Lee Dawson’s house at 214 South Hamilton. McKie no longer worked as an interior decorator, but at the less prestigious job of outdoor sign painter. His neighbors were laborers, domestics, and factory hands, including Harry Brothers, an auto striper in an auto factory, and foundry worker Newton Cary.
Although artificial ice factories made McKie’s invention obsolete, it would have happened eventually. A very few, expensive models of electric home refrigerators were produced in the 1930s, which became more widely available after WWII.
Today the only places to see iceboxes are antique shops and museums. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum has one in its kitchen. It’s just barely possible that its ice compartment once held a block of ice cut by a young man, gleeful at the controls of his loud, dangerous invention, all those years ago.
Laura Bien is a local history writer and is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.”
In the fall of 1925, Ypsilantians, and the nation, were transfixed by the romance of a onetime Lower East Side immigrant kid and a telegraph magnate’s daughter. Her wealthy father, Clarence, the son of Comstock Lode multimillionaire John Mackay, strongly disapproved of his Catholic daughter Ellin’s interest in a Jewish man with what he viewed as a disreputable occupation. Clarence refused to give Ellin his permission to marry. The couple waited in dismay for Clarence to change his mind.
Daily Ypsilantian-Press editor George Handy waited as well for the next tidbit of news—his readers loved the story.
When in January of 1926 that news came from New York, it was a bombshell. Ellin Mackay had eloped with and married Irving Berlin.
Handy needed a wedding photograph from New York—and fast—this story was too big to wait for the mail. He called New York.
Half an hour later he had a photograph, thanks to the only modem in Ypsilanti in 1926
That modem, half the size of a refrigerator, stood in the Press’s building at 101-105 North Huron. Called a “telephotography” machine, it could receive photographs from telegraph wires.
Telegraphy had a long history in Ypsilanti. The first telegraphic message sent in Michigan traveled from the Detroit telegraph office at Jefferson and Cass Avenues in Detroit to Ypsilanti’s railroad depot on November 29, 1847, through lines strung along the Michigan Central railroad tracks.
The first message sent by the “lightning slingers” (telegraph operators, especially railroad telegraphers) was not without a sense of playful glee.
Detroit sent first. “Detroit presents her compliments to her sister, Ypsilanti, who never promises more than she is willing and able to perform. Our connection by lightning is now complete, and the first flash in Michigan conveying intelligent messages has passed between us; may our ‘current’ never be broken, our ‘batteries’ always in order, and our ‘registers” ready at all times to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Ypsilanti replied, “Ypsilanti [-.– .–. … .. .-.. .- -. – ..] reciprocates the kind wishes of our lovely sister, Detroit, and as we are now not only on speaking terms, but within speaking distance, she hopes that our intercourse by lightning may be pleasant and profitable to both. So mote it [so be it].”
Continuing from the telegraph station in Ypsilanti, this “Erie and Michigan” line reached Chicago in the winter of 1848. But it wouldn’t be until many years later that photographs began flying along the wires.
In the 1920s, “Telephotography” was not new. As early as 1895, the San Francisco Call newspaper received a simple line drawing, sent by telegraph, of a Los Angeles parade. The message consisted of an alphanumeric code indicating the coordinates of the drawing’s line segments (not unlike the game “Battleship.”) The telegrapher also cabled a text description of the parade. An artist at the Call used the description to sketch details onto the line drawing, creating a detailed picture. The next morning, the paper printed a timely image of the Los Angeles event.
Telephotography made newspapers more seem up-to-the-minute. The technology was also used in law enforcement. Criminals’ pictures could be circulated in minutes, before the lawbreakers traveled too far. Their fingerprints could also be sent by wire. In 1922, the New York Times called telephotography “That Nemesis of Malefactors.” The speed of information transmission was beginning its long, dramatic, and world-changing acceleration.
The modem at the Ypsi Press consisted of a cylindrical metal drum and a tiny pinpoint flashlight, within its cabinet. It was hooked up to a telegraph wire. So was another similar machine, a transmitter, in New York.
In New York, a worker wrapped a photograph around the transmitter cylinder. When the machine was turned on, a tiny beam of light shone on the photo as the cylinder rotated about 100 times per minute, slowly advancing along a threaded axis. The transmitter scanned the photo in one-hundredth-inch sections at 100 lines to the inch; each square inch had 10,000 bits of information.
As the beam of slight scanned a slow spiral down the moving cylinder, a receptor caught the reflection of either dark or light areas of the photo. A photosensitive component translated the “dark” and “light” reflections into differing pulses of electricity. This coded electrical signal was telegraphed to Ypsilanti. The New York transmitter could send, and the Ypsi receiver could receive, 1,800 bits of information per second. A 5 x 7 photo could be sent and received in about 7 minutes.
In Ypsilanti, the receiver machine, whose rotation was adjusted to exactly match that of the New York machine, decoded the electrical signal back into information indicating light and dark areas. The receiver shone light of corresponding strength onto a fresh piece of photographic film attached to the cylinder.
In this way, a photo negative was produced, which was developed and used in the Ypsi paper. The resulting photo had a more limited tonal range than the original. Also, someone had blocked out most of the background in white to highlight the couple. Nevertheless, the photo contained an astounding amount of data.
1,800 bits per second is faster than the first commercial modem, AT&T’s 1962 Bell 103, which transmitted at 300 bits per second (bps). At this time, 300 bits per second equaled 300 baud, the unit of modem speed. Later, computer scientists figured out how to pack more bits into each baud, and bps became a more descriptive term for modem speed.
As much as we associate modems with the term “baud,” the term actually comes from telegraphy. Named to honor the French inventor who created the first teleprinter, J. M. E. Baudot, one “baud” is a unit of telegraph speed consisting of one Morse code dot sent per second.
Since that day when the Press received its New York photo, time moved on. The telephotography machine became an obsolete clunker. Irving Berlin’s father-in-law eventually forgave him and accepted their marriage—a wise move, since Irving would stay married to Ellin for 62 years, until her death in 1988.
Berlin died the following year, shortly before the popularization of dial-up modems, like the one that had transmitted his happy wedding picture all those years ago.
Thanks to Isaac Eiland-Hall for research assistance.
Laura Bien is an Ypsilanti history writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.