Seventy-five miles south of Albany, N.Y., the Hudson River
narrows into a crooked channel before resuming its stately flow
to the Atlantic. During the Hudson Valley's Victorian heyday,
this channel was part of a 50-mile stretch known as the
Millionaires' Belt, and each winter grand ice yachts commanded
the frozen river. At the time, they were the fastest vehicles on
earth. Gusts of wind sent them scudding over rough ice at 70 mph
or more--sometimes much more. As seen from the estates
overlooking the river, the boats resembled clouds of moths.
Their races were spectacles that drew extensive newspaper
coverage. One race in the early 1870s attracted 2,000 spectators.
Not everyone has forgotten those gilded days. The Hudson River
Ice Yacht Club, a fraternity of some 75 antiquarian iceboaters,
is gradually reclaiming yachts abandoned in barns and
outbuildings. "We're not wealthy people," says Commodore Reid
Bielenberg. "We don't spend a lot of money on them. But we do
manage to drag them out of the sheds and put them together for
one more year."
On an unusually balmy day last January, Bielenberg walked across
the slushy surface of South Bay, an inlet off the Hudson in
Barrytown, N.Y. Nine time-darkened ice yachts sat together,
their sharpened machete-shaped runners balanced on wooden blocks
to prevent them from becoming embedded in the soft ice. Each
boat was built in the Christian cross configuration popular in
the late 19th century, with a long, gracefully bowed backbone
and a shorter crosspiece called the runner plank. To steer the
boat the skipper lies on his side on an oval cockpit (the tray),
an arm's reach from the tiller.
Bielenberg, dressed in a worn pea coat and baggy wool pants,
peeled a protective tarpaulin back from his 101-year-old
Northwind to reveal burgundy upholstered cushions and a patched
sail dating back to the second Grover Cleveland administration.
"Its age doesn't matter once we're under way," he said. "We
still go 60 miles an hour."
March 10, 1997
There would be no iceboating on such a warm day. Scanning the
bay, Bielenberg predicted that the soupy melt would freeze hard
overnight. He was right. The next day's conditions were
spectacular, with a lustrous surface and a freshening westerly
wind. "It was almost too good," said Chris Kendall, who set sail
in his 999, named after the first locomotive to surpass 110 mph.
"The ice was so smooth, our runners kept side-slipping."
Kendall, a cabinetmaker in Tivoli, N.Y., bought the 999 six
years ago for $275 and rebuilt it.
"Most of us are woodworkers or craftsmen," said Bielenberg, who
owns a restoration business. "We've performed some spectacular
The most spectacular of all is now going on. Two years ago the
HRIYC removed the behemoth Icicle--the queen of the fleet--from
the basement of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park,
N.Y., where it had been on display alongside the president's
smaller iceboat, Hawk (which has since been returned to
storage), and his 1936 Ford Phaeton. A stone wall was partially
removed so that volunteers could carry the big yacht's varnished
backbone up an excavated trench to a flatbed truck that
delivered it to the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, 10
miles away. The Icicle resides there like a museum dinosaur.
With a 69-foot backbone and 1,070 square feet of sail, the
sloop-rigged Icicle is the largest ice yacht ever launched. She
was commissioned in 1869 by the president's uncle John A.
Roosevelt and made from butternut wood grown on his estate in
Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was so heavy (about one ton) that
Roosevelt needed a railroad flatcar to move her to the ice. It
took six crewmen an hour to rig her. "Imagine what she looked
like," Kendall says, "bearing down on you with 1,000 feet of
Like other ice yachts, Icicle raced the trains that traveled
along the Hudson (a railroad the Roosevelts themselves had
helped to build). The crews sometimes waited for the train
carrying their patron from New York so that he could watch his
yacht in action. In 1871 Icicle beat the Chicago Express, one of
the fastest trains in the country, between two of the
Bigger was not always better. Like other yachts of her scale,
Icicle was so loaded with unbalanced sail power that she would
occasionally "flicker," or spin out. "If the helmsman lost his
grip on the tiller, the boat would spin around like a top,"
Bielenberg says. "It held together, but the crew was
catapulted." The owners were rarely at risk. Hired crews usually
raced the yachts around a 20-mile course while the gentlemen
sportsmen rooted from afar.
In 1882 Hipe Relyea, a steamboat captain, sailed down from the
town of Catskill, N.Y., in his smaller craft, Robert Scott, with
a sail half the size of Icicle's, and easily bested the big
boat. Relyea proved that a smaller mast stepped three feet
forward produced a balanced rig that maintained control at high
speeds. Roosevelt promptly shortened his boat by 21 feet and
eliminated one third of her sail.
One couldn't ask for a better person to restore Icicle to her
former glory than the resourceful Bielenberg, who has rebuilt
World War I biplanes and renovated lighthouses. The hardest part
will be raising the $8,000 or so needed for a new set of
historically faithful cotton sails. "I think the boat deserves
authentic sails," Bielenberg says.
If Icicle is relaunched next winter, she can resume her rivalry
with Jack Frost, a yacht of comparable dimensions that has
undergone its own remarkable recovery. By the time a 12-man team
began rebuilding Jack Frost in 1971, there wasn't much
left--just spars, runners and assorted hardware. Club members
made a new 50-foot backbone and 29-foot runner plank from Sitka
spruce shipped from Washington state. They relaunched Jack Frost
in 1973 with her 1902 sails hoisted. "She has the fastest
acceleration I've ever experienced," says Bob Wills, an
architect in Rhinecliff, N.Y. "She's just pure power. It's like
having a rocket attached to your back. You're propelled. It's
actually frightening to see her go."
Bielenberg looks forward to the day when Icicle and Jack Frost
can resume racing for the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of
America, the iceboating equivalent of the America's Cup. The
original silk pennant, a slender 30-foot streamer with gold
lettering, was made by Tiffany and displayed both in its Fifth
Avenue window and at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in
Philadelphia. It is now at the FDR Library.
"Franklin Roosevelt's generation maintained the ice yachts,"
says Bielenberg, "but the Victorian era was ending. The world
turned its attention to flying machines and World War I."
Five consecutive warm winters grounded the fleet after what
turned out to be the last race, in 1902. Jack Frost had won the
contest five times, Icicle four. The HRIYC would like to
commission a replica of the faded pennant and give Icicle a
chance to even the series. "So what if the yachts are 100 years
past their prime," says Wills. "They're like two old locomotives
racing out of the past."
The slide lecture Bielenberg delivers to interested groups
includes a photograph of John Roosevelt's slate-roofed
boathouse, now owned by a commercial marina and used for
outboard engine repairs. Bielenberg dreams of reclaiming and
restoring the building so the reborn Icicle can return to her
original berth, a project that will require even more money.
Bielenberg is already planning fund-raising banquets on the ice
with a bonfire, cauldrons of steamed mussels, stew pots and
"There's a certain element in our group that prides itself on
its ability to throw parties," he says, savoring the image.
"We'll put them to the test."
Michael Cannell, who lives in New York City, is a freelance
writer and frequent contributor to SI.