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 I gilded days. The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, a fraternity of some 75 antiquarian ice-boaters, 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."
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 repairs."
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 sail."
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 locomotive's stops.
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.