History on the Rocks

By Duncan McCay

The Heinz History Center that anchors the east end of Smallman Street in the Strip is housed in what used to be an ice distribution company.

In the late 1800’s, The Chautauqua Lake Ice Company on Smallman Street helped people keep their food cold and fresh.  “Prior to the days of refrigeration, many local residents relied on ice deliveries to keep their food cold,” said Brady Smith, the communications manager at the Senator John Heinz History Center. “The Chautauqua Lake Ice Company’s Smallman Street warehouse stockpiled ice harvested from New York lakes and shipped south to Pittsburgh on railcars.”

Ice would seem a pretty safe and stable medium, but disaster visited the Chautauqua Ice Company building. “The building has a chilling legacy,” Smith said.

According to an 1898 report by The New York Times, an explosion caused by ammonia and whisky left 11 dead, 19 seriously injured, 27 missing and caused a total of $1,500,000 in property losses for the company and surrounding businesses.

However, “by 1898, the seven-story brick structure was back in service supplying blocks of ice to home ice boxes throughout the city,” said Smith. The company’s useful days were numbered by then.

“With the invention of the electric refrigerator, the demand for ice quickly evaporated, forcing the closure of the ice warehouse in 1952,” Smith said.