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Keeping Cool

For most of the country, August is the long, hot month when the extreme heat of summer has a firm grip and most of us are searching for some cool relief. In today’s world, that relief is readily available in our homes, offices and vehicles as air conditioning all but surrounds us. Like magic, it creates zones of cool in the midst of oppressive heat, providing a temporary respite in some places and making some otherwise uninhabitable places livable. Ice, of course, has been around forever but for most of time its creation was strictly the province of nature. For those living near a body of water where the climate was suitable, harvesting and storing ice allowed the cold of winter to be spread throughout the year. As transportation improved in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the flow of harvested ice expanded farther and farther away from its source—the lakes, ponds and rivers situated in climates where ice could form suitably enough. Better methods of storage and insulation contributed to an ever-widening market for American ice, such that by 1833 an enterprising American “ice king” was making waves in Calcutta with his ice blocks cut from ponds in New England. Little known to most Americans today is the colorful history of the natural ice-harvesting industry that thrived for a century before it was gradually overtaken by artificial ice-making technology and undermined by environmental degradation. In this issue of American History writer Mark Bernstein recounts the emergence and development of the nation’s natural ice industry and offers a fascinating glimpse of a time in our past when ice was regarded as the first crop of the year.

And, while we all may now be yearning for some cooler days to come, join us for a trip to Alaska in January where, 81 years ago, 20 men and dozens of dogs braved blizzard conditions and subzero temperatures in a desperate effort to save the inhabitants of Nome from a deadly diphtheria outbreak. Contributor Mike Coppock tells the captivating story of heroism, sacrifice and teamwork that saved a town and inspired, nearly a half century later, the world-famous test of dogsled team endurance known as the Iditarod. One of the four-legged heroes of that 1925 rescue, a Siberian husky named Balto, captured the love and affection of millions around the country. Today, Balto’s bronze statue in New York’s Central Park, dedicated in 1926, reminds visitors of the Alaskan miracle and remains one of the park’s most visited monuments.

It is ironic that statues such as Balto’s and others in New York City commemorate countless heroes and events in American history, yet you’ll be hard pressed to find many references to one of the city’s most significant moments. Our cover story this month takes us back to the end of the Revolution and looks at a day in New York’s past that for much of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was marked with grand celebrations rivaling Independence Day. For nearly two years after the fighting all but ceased in the Revolution, New York remained an occupied city, held by the British until November 25, 1783. Contributor Erik Axelson reminds us of New York’s Evacuation Day—with its jubilant return of General George Washington—and traces its decline in our memories.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.