Up until the 1870s, most of the land of the Pocono plateau was pristine forest. The area where Camp Minsi currently stands was full of large trees and dense swamp. During this time, businessmen from New York City and the surrounding areas began buying up the land from local residents and clear-cutting the plateau to harvest the lumber. The small stream that ran through the swampy area was soon dammed to create Stillwater Lake.
When Stillwater Lake was built in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was built as a “splash pond” for the logging industry and was originally called Tunhannock Lake. The trees in the area were cut and the logs dragged to the lake by teams of horses. At the right time when there were lots of logs in the lake, the dam would be breached and the resulting flood would carry the logs downstream to Lake Naomi. The process would be repeated there as the logs continued their journey to the saw mill.
By the 1830s, lumbering was taking place on a massive scale throughout the region. By 1860, Pennsylvania, with over 28-million acres of land (much of which was densely forested) had become America's lumbering champion. However eventually the virgin forest was cleared and the loggers moved on.
Long before modern day refrigeration was available, people relied on ice to store their perishable foods; and from the late 1880s until the 1930s, the ice industry of the Poconos was king.
In 1898 the first ice was harvested from Stillwater Lake. The Tunkhannock Ice Company constructed ice houses on the eastern shores of the lake where they could store 70,000 tons of ice; and the Wilkes-Barre and Eastern Railroad built a 1½-mile siding directly into the ice house area to transport the ice. Soon after, in 1902, the ice company merged with the Mountain Ice Company. Run by industrialist Samuel Rubel, the Mountain Ice Company was the leading ice company of the area, supplying ice to New York City, Philadelphia, and many other areas.
During the winter, Stillwater Lake freezes to a depth of about 8 to 14 inches thick. And so the ice company would glean the lake for its natural resource of ice. The ice harvesting process was labor intensive. Crews of men using teams of horses would clear the ice field of snow. Then men measured and marked grids on the ice (usually at 22" x 32" to 44" squares). Horses would pull a tool that cut a groove along the grid . The next step was to cut through the grooves until the blocks broke off. Men used one-handed crosscut ice saws to cut the large blocks of ice. The men would float these massive blocks of ice down a cleared channel to a chute where they were hauled up and into an ice house. Each block was moved up chutes with hooks to various levels as the ice house was filled with layers of ice separated and surrounded by layers of sawdust supplied by lumber mills. The sawdust helped insulate the ice from thawing. If properly stored, the ice in a fully stocked ice house would last throughout the year. Ice was loaded into railroad cars by chutes and shipped by train from the ice house to the various cities throughout the northeast.
The ice houses at Stillwater were composed of rooms which were 50-feet wide, 100-feet long and 50-feet high. They were clustered together and made a structure that was 300-foot by 100-foot and 50-foot high. In addition to these buildings there would be another building containing the steam plant to provide the energy necessary to operate the conveyors and other machinery. Some of the foundations are still intact today. A few of the ice houses in the Poconos were dismantled, but the majority were destroyed by lightning.
In 1927 there was more than 36,000 tons of ice cut from Stillwater Lake. Each car would hold 30 tons and there were times that 100 cars of ice left the Poconos each day. The Mountain Ice Company employed over 1,500 men and 100 horses during the height of the harvest. Farmers came from miles around when the cutting started. The ice company had boarding houses for these workers who were paid $0.30 per hour working on the ice and $0.35 per hour while working in the ice houses. It usually took about one hundred days to fill the ice houses but the record was set one year when the houses were filled in eleven days. The Mountain Ice Company sold ice at $0.06 per ton with the motto “a block of ice never gets out of order”.
However, with the rise of electric refrigeration in the 1930s, the harvesting of the ice from the lakes became less and less profitable. Eventually, the ice company folded.
The Boy Scouts of America’s Delaware Valley Area Council operated Weygadt Scout Reservation in the Delaware Water Gap on the Delaware River from 1931 until 1968. The reservation was originally home to two Scout camps — the Easton Council's Camp Weygadt on the southern part of the reservation and the Bethlehem Area Council's Camp Minsi on the northern section of the reservation. In the later part of the 1930s, Bethlehem Area Council moved their camp to the Poconos, and the entire reservation in the Water Gap became Camp Weygadt.
Throughout 1920s and 1930s the summer camp for the Bethlehem Area Council moved from place to place in the Poconos. Once it was held in Tobyhanna State Park. In 1949, Samuel Rubel and the Mountain Ice Company donated the land around Stillwater Lake to the Boy Scouts, and the Bethlehem Area Council was able to set up a permanent camp.
A camp was established on the southern shore of the lake utilizing the facilities of the old ice industry. The old buildings of the Ice Company were used for the staff housing, dining hall, health lodge, an indoor rifle range and the ranger’s lodging.
However the council sought to expand its programming for summer camp and plans were drawn up for a bigger and better Camp Minsi. In the mid-to-late 1950s the plans were realized, chiefly through the donations given to the council from Bethlehem Steel. Construction of the current camp, along the western side of the lake, was completed in 1958 and the newly expanded camp opened for the first time in the summer of 1959.
Sadly, in 1968, Weygadt Scout Reservation was forced to sell their property due to the impending Tocks Island Dam project on the Delaware River; however many of the camp's resources and legacies have been able to live on at Camp Minsi. For example, the cannon currently in use in the parade field was originally from Camp Weygadt; and funding from the sale of the Weygadt property have supported many projects at Camp Minsi — including the expansion and dedication of the "Weygadt Trust Dining Hall" in 2007.
Camp Minsi, now a part of Minsi Trails Council due to the merging of councils, continues to serve Scouts throughout the northeast. Over the past 50-years the number of campsites has increased from the original six sites to ten, and each site has also grown in capacity and design. Several program areas and facilities have been moved and added throughout the years. A "state of the art" central shower house was constructed in 1998. In 2007 Camp Minsi expanded its dining hall by an additional 80 feet (24 m). In August 2010, construction began on a renovation of the Stillwater Lake Dam (including a new spillway, gate, and a 400 foot roller-compacted concrete dam). The nearly $2-million project was completed by the spring of 2011, allowing Stillwater Lake and Camp Minsi to continue to serve Scouts for decades to come.
In the 1800s, logging was a premiere industry in the Poconos.
In the early 1900s, ice was king in the Poconos.
Footage of the ice industry on Stillwater Lake from 1921.
The cannon at Weygadt Scout Reservation in 1940. This cannon now resides at Camp Minsi and is still shot daily throughout the summer.
Article from the New York Times, June 17, 1949.
A gateway over the old entrance of camp.
Footage of summer camp at Camp Minsi from 1982
News article from the Pocono Record, August 2, 2007