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1908: Ice house burns to foundation; yet 20 carloads of ice blocks salvaged

The industry that evolved around ice harvesting and storage in Hannibal is indicative of the era before refrigeration. Ice harvesting photos taken during the early years of the 20th Century are a familiar reminder that Mother Nature uninterrupted can solve mankind’s challenges.

The source of the ice – the freezing of the Mississippi River – was as predictable as spring flooding. The river, left to wander on its own and unencumbered by a set of locks and dams to be constructed during the 1930s, annually froze solid enough to stop all steamboat traffic, form an “ice bridge” for vehicles and horse-drawn wagons to cross, and to allow for the ice harvest. Men with saws facilitated the harvest.

The ice blocks, packed in sawdust created at the town’s lumber mills and stored in sheds that ranged in sizes capable of serving a single family or an entire western state, kept Hannibal residents working during the winter, and kept food cold in the summer.

James H. McCooey, an Oxford-educated man of means, settled in Hannibal as a young man, maturing as a capitalist with business ventures in St. Louis and Cleveland, as well as Hannibal. In Hannibal, he was a grocery merchant and ice dealer.

A catastrophe occurred on July 2, 1908, when the ice house owned by J.H. McCooey, located opposite of Bridge Street and about a mile north of the railroad bridge, caught fire. The building, three-quarters filled with ice blocks, burned to the foundation.

C.M. Scott, working nearby, was the first to notice the fire, flames extending from the east roof of the big structure.

Hannibal firefighters went as far as the railroad bridge with the intent of extinguishing the blaze, before turning around and returning to the fire house.

News reports of the day note that the fire created a good deal of excitement in Hannibal.

Within days, a Quincy interest had filed suit in the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas, assessing blame against the railroad, claiming sparks from the steam engine had ignited the building.

Total loss was estimated at $20,000, mostly insured.

Despite the fire, 20 train carloads of ice were salvaged. The Monroe City Democrat reprinted the following note on July 23, 1908, originally published by the Hannibal Journal:

“The ice house of J.H. McCooey & Co., up the river, was burned down to the foundation, but the contents stood upright like an iceberg, until the owner of the stock … got ready to ship it away.”

Soon thereafter, McCooey constructed a concrete structure at Scipio, a building which remains standing today. Used for boat storage, the building still has “Scipio Ice Co., J.H. McCooey Pr.” Inscribed on its exterior.”

McCooey and his two spinster sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Ann Teresa McCooey, operated the family’s grocery business at Hill and Main streets, a half a block from Sam Clemens’ boyhood home, following their mother’s death in 1907. They were the children of Thomas and Ann Henry McCooey, pre-Civil War grocery merchants of Hannibal. J.H. McCooey died March 11, 1917.

Following the sisters’ deaths in the early 1930s, they left a bequest funding the James H. McCooey Memorial with the Hannibal Catholic Church. For many years, the Catholic school at Maple and Broadway was named in honor of the McCooeys. The family is buried in Holy Family Cemetery.

Much of the preceding information was obtained from the digital files of Quincy newspapers,


The old Scipio Ice House carries with it a reminder that the McCooey family was vested in the ice business early in the 20th Century. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY/FOR THE COURIER-POST

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