Vintage photo of men and horses harvesting ice on the Milwaukee River

At the turn of the century, a rivalry between two competing ice harvesting companies culminated in what the newspapers called “The Ice War” between an ice-breaking boat with a lively brass band and hundreds of Wisconsin Lakes Ice Company employees on the frozen Milwaukee River.

Ice was big business in Wisconsin in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was harvested by hand, piece by piece, from rivers and lakes and stored in massive, insulated icehouses to be sold throughout the rest of the year.

Ice was delivered to homes and businesses 7 days a week. Butchers depended on it to keep meat fresh. Breweries needed it to keep their lager cold. Farmers needed it for their milk tanks. Funeral homes had bodies to keep cool.

In Milwaukee, competition became so fierce that two companies became embroiled in a six-week “Ice War” in the winter of 1900-01 that nearly culminated in an all-out brawl on the ice of the Milwaukee River.

Ice delivery at the Pabst Mansion

Ice delivery at the Pabst Mansion

Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage Co. dominated the Southeastern Wisconsin ice industry around the turn of the century. The company, founded by German immigrant John Kopmeier, employed 300 workers, had more than 500 delivery horses, and was no doubt responsible for the majority of the city’s 300,000+ tons of ice harvested annually.

Things got heated when Pike & North Lakes Ice Company opened on a nearby lake with the intention of dominating the Milwaukee market. There was just one small matter standing in their way.

“There was, however, a small strip of land between North Lake’s new icehouse and the railroad siding,” historian Carl Swanson writes. His book Lost Milwaukee (see it here on Amazon) details the Ice War, as well as numerous other curious moments from Milwaukee’s past. “Someone, probably acting under the direction of the Wisconsin Lakes Company, bought this land and refused to grant North Lakes permission to cross the property, which it had to do to ship out its ice.”

That’s when the Julius Goll showed up. It was a steam-powered river boat fitted with an ice-breaking prow and a boiler plate-reinforced hull. It began steaming up and down the river, smashing through Wisconsin Lakes’ valuable ice fields with a load of passengers to the tunes of the live brass band on board.

Enemy boat frozen in the Milwaukee River during the 1901 Ice War

Freeing the Julius Goll from an ice shelf on the Milwaukee River during the Ice War, 1901

“The Wisconsin Lakes Company was certain the North Lakes firm hired the boat,” Swanson says, “but the captain of the Julius Goll, a man named Biggs, told reporters he was trying to establish an off-season river excursion service between the North Avenue dam and the Blatz Park beer garden, two miles upstream. Hence, he added, the reason for the band.”

The Wisconsin Lakes men – the ones who depended on the ice to put food on their tables – weren’t buying it, and those aboard the little steamer certainly weren’t just there for a ride.

“The band played on, but the husky youths on board were far more than excursionists,” Lee E. Lawrence wrote in a 1965 article for Wisconsin Magazine. “They fought off the attacks of the men of the Wisconsin Lakes Company, pried the vessel free when it stuck on ice too thick to be borne down and broken by the special prow, cut heavy strands of barbed wire strung from bank to bank, warded off heavy timbers studded with spikes launched by the defenders, and made patches when their armored vessel was holed. This went on for six weeks whenever the river re-froze. No more ice was cut.”

Harvesting ice from the Milwaukee River

Wisconsin Lakes men harvesting ice from the Milwaukee River

The Ice War reached its boiling point on January 20, 1901. As the Julius Goll cheerfully smashed through the ice, the Wisconsin Lakes icemen tried to stop it with row boards tethered together across the river and wood planks protecting their ice.

Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch from the North Avenue Bridge and the banks of the river as it played out, and police marched out on the ice to prevent a fight.

Still, the boat plowed on. That is, until karma intervened later that night and it took a blow that finally did it in.

“In the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 21, the little steamer collided hard with a thick shelf of ice, opened a hull seam, and had to call it quits,” Swanson says. “However, the boat had done so much damage that the paper said it was doubtful any further ice could be harvested that season.”

After six weeks the Ice War came to an end for the season, but neither company was triumphant.

“The ice is all gone and there is nothing to fight about, so the famous ‘ice cases’ have been dismissed in police court by mutual consent,” The Journal reported. “During the excitement on the river, a hole was punched in the ‘battleship’ Julius Goll, large quantities of ice cut by the Wisconsin Lake Ice Company were destroyed, ‘Admiral’ Biggs got a broken arm, and the adherents of both sides had numerous cold baths and bruises distributed among them.”

Men pose for a "North Pole expedition photo" on a pile of ice in Milwaukee

Men pose for a “North Pole expedition” photo on a mountain of scrap ice outside a Wisconsin Lakes warehouse in Milwaukee c.1900

Tensions between the two companies – along with the threat of another ice war – didn’t ease until Wisconsin Lakes bought out North Lakes in 1904.Wisconsin Lakes continued to supply ice throughout Milwaukee into the 1940s.

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