Tucson Iced

September 6, 2012 |

by Monica Surfaro Spigelmen

(All photos: Promotional images taken prior to the construction of the Ice House Lofts (2004). Photos by Liam Frederick, courtesy of Deep Freeze Development, LLC.)

The sidewalks fry, the dust devils spiral, the snow birds flee north. Summer is here. You may be boiling, but relief is usually an air conditioner away. Yet, if there was a power outage and no escape from the meltdown, yikes! It’s enough to make you wilt.

And so we ponder: How did desert rats handle the Old Pueblo’s inferno in the days before refrigeration?

Ah, yes – there was ice.

Ice Man Rising

Towards the close of the 19th century Tucson was coming of age, balancing disaster and prosperity, full of a colorful population eager to beat the desert heat. Our gritty streets were bustling with street vendors who set up noisy bazaars, beer halls and amusement complexes that catered to tastes of various neighborhoods. New methods of merchandising were contrived on the principle of quick sale and profit.

One of the great merchandising landmarks back then focused on a mechanical wonder recently introduced to Tucson by a lawyer named Paul Moroney, who also happened to own the Cosmopolitan Hotel downtown at the corner of Pennington Street and Main Avenue.

Moroney brought the ice business to Tucson after moving his family here sometime after 1875. The January 29, 1880 Arizona Weekly Star reported on Moroney constructing the first ice machine in Tucson. This fact was confirmed in the June 24, 1944 Arizona Daily Star, when then 75-year-old native Tucsonan Harry Drachman reported, “In 1875-76 a man named Paul Moroney built the first ice plant in Tucson in Levine’s Park with machinery brought from the west coast. The plant equipment was shipped to Colton California by train and from there to Tucson by freight wagon, drawn by 16 mules.”

At first Moroney had the concession from the Southern Pacific (now Union) Railroad Company to sell ice to the public. But he also sold to barkeeps and proprietors like Alex Boss Levin, who ran Levin’s Park, the theater and refreshment complex built in a cottonwood grove off of West Pennington Street.

The beer hall, stage show and ice cream vendors offered a cool retreat for summer evenings. Moroney’s success brought competitors and soon ice was made in ice houses that dotted downtown. These houses had inner and outer ice rooms, insulated with hay ceilings which secured the ice against desert temps. In the houses, water was steam-pumped from wells and it took 48 hours of whirring mechanics and lathes to produce 3,500 pounds of ice.

Business boomed. As ice became a necessary part of Tucson refreshment, nearly every family, street grocer and beer hall had an icebox. An 1880 advertisement listed the price of ice (20 pounds and under) as 5 cents per pound, including delivery around town. There’s no doubt that Moroney and his early form of refrigeration gave rise to our city, making our dusty desert valley a more hospitable place.

Arroyo Chico
The ice houses seemed to congregate nearby the rich resources of the Arroyo Chico – our city’s 10 mile watercourse that still snakes, in dry and wet states, from around what is now Alvernon and Reid Park to the Santa Cruz River and 1-10. The houses churned out 300-pound blocks of tasty, old fashioned ice from frozen, treated filtered water. Built along this critical Arroyo Chico watershed downtown were companies like Moroney’s and the Arctic Ice Company. The Arizona Weekly Star reported in 1886 a near crisis, when the Arctic Ice Company’s machinery was stuck back east on a freight train, after being shipped there for repairs. Company officials calmed a frantic public by announcing in the newspaper there was at least several weeks’ ice stored, enough to hold Tucson until the machinery was returned.

As consumption of ice rose steadily, so did new inventions like soda fountain shops. It’s reported that the ice cream “Sunday” was created in the 1890s with the name eventually changed to “sundae” to disconnect from ties to the Sabbath. Advertisements promoted raw ice “incomparably the best for cooling drinks” and urged families “not to risk baby’s health by skimping on ice.”


To meet demand, other ice houses as well as dry cleaners set up nearby the Arroyo Chico and the railroad track line. Arizona Ice and Cold Storage Company, founded 1923, was probably Tucson’s biggest and most influential. Bonnie Henry’s July 26, 1992 Arizona Daily Star column reported on the ice companies that came to town, noting that in its prime, Arizona Ice and Cold Storage had 32 delivery routes and other outlets like vending machines, cold storage facilities and the business of icing rail cars.

Another of the popular companies of the 1930s and 1940s was Home Ice and Coal Company, known for its yellow trucks which lined up along the 7th Avenue block near the railroad tracks.

Progress Trumps the Wagon
As industrialization and household refrigeration appliances took hold, things started to change for the ice industry. Ironically, what originally created all the demand and dependence on cool comforts created problems for the industry and ultimately caused its demise. First came the issue of finding good water sources for pure ice, as all the industry teeming along the arroyo brought pollution. Then, with refrigeration inventions going mass market, there was little need for the cumbersome ice plants. By the 1920s, most households had refrigerators and after World War II fresh harvested ice was replaced with machine-made. Air conditioning for the masses was not far behind. Without public dependence on fresh ice, the icemen lost their routes and their wagons. Ice house businesses left the arroyo.

The warehouse neighborhoods with the ice houses started a downward slide, and it took decades for arts and historic preservation to hint at reviving them. There have been some bright spots in the cloudy, local ice house history. Mark Berman and his family’s Benjamin Supply plumbing business, downtown more than half a century, bought the Home Ice and Coal building (which had been swallowed up by Arizona Ice and then Tucson Warehouse & Transfer Company).

Berman, a Tucson preservation advocate with training in architecture, has retained the architectural integrity of the Josias Joesler designed warehouse and its tall tower, incorporating the original structural and architectural components into his showroom and warehouse complex. The old well fed by the Arroyo Chico is there, although capped, and the massive ice chute is still visible in the Benjamin Supply’s main showroom area.

Another ice relic, the downtown Arizona Ice and Cold Storage facility, closed in 2002, but it rose re-purposed as Ice House Lofts, preserving the authentic industrial character of the building. Adaptive reuse has turned machinery into loft construction and sculptural entryway markers for residential complex.


Today, if you see the once-mighty Tucson ice industry, it’s now mostly in the form of ice cooler kiosks sitting alongside gas stations or abutting convenience stores. The kiosks are mostly managed locally but owned by larger national conglomerates that sell pre-packaged stuff.

Still, looking at the historic tower saved by Benjamin Supply or walking by the machinery-turned sculpture in the Ice Loft residences, we can dream about the good old days.

So, next time you slurp that snow cone with its shaved ice, taste some artisan ice cream, or click the ice cubes inside your margarita, remember to be grateful for a bygone industry, which considered pure water its gold.

Category: Community