Ice Boating in Madison: A Bernard Family Tradition

Ice boating for sport began along New York’s upper Hudson River around the Civil War and soon spread to other cold weather locations. An 1878 article in Harper’s Weekly includes an engraving of ice boating in Madison. The city quickly became a center for ice boating in North America, a distinction held for over a century. By 1900 an estimated 200 ice boats were active on the capital city’s lakes, and the rivalry between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota skippers was intense.

5 Ice Boats on Lake Mendota
A gathering of gaff-rigged, stern-steering ice boats and their captains on Lake Mendota, 1896. Source: WHI 2074

Within Madison’s great ice boating tradition, the Bernard family name looms large. Carl Bernard, one of the best ice boat skippers to ever come out of Madison, was the third generation of the Madison boat-building family. His grandfather, Charles Bernard, Sr. was born in Baden, Germany in 1824 and immigrated to the United States with his family eight years later. Charles arrived in Madison in 1853 and soon began making boats, eventually building the first Bernard boat house on the shore of Lake Mendota between Blair and Blount Streets.

Bernard's Boat House on Lake Mendota, circa 1915.
Bernard’s Boat House on Lake Mendota, circa 1915. This boathouse, rebuilt after a 1914 fire, stands on the site of an earlier boathouse constructed by Charles Bernard behind the family residence at 624 E. Gorham St. Now located in James Madison Park, this structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Source: WHI 3495

As a boy, William Bernard, Carl’s father, helped in the family shop and took over the family business upon his father’s death. During warm weather, William continued to build steamboats, rowboats, canoes, and sailboats for both local and out of state clients. He also ran a water livery service and excursions to “Bernard’s Pleasure Park” on the north shore of Lake Mendota, east of Governor’s Island. During the winter, the Bernards built, rented and raced ice boats.

Trussed runner plank, as seen on a model ice boat
The backward angled mast and the trussed runner plank (seen here) distinguish this model as a “Madison Style” ice boat. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1983.292

In addition to building ice boats, William Bernard was an accomplished designer and skipper. In the late 19th century, he developed a distinct “Madison Style” of ice boat. Madison Style boats differed from the earlier Hudson River Style in two major respects: their masts were not vertical, but raked toward the rear, and instead of solid runner planks, Madison Style boats featured a lighter, trussed design. Though prone to spinning out, Madison Style boats were once considered the fastest sailboats on ice, capable of reaching speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. William built many famous ice boats, including the “Princess II” for Madison brewer Emil Fauerbach, which won the “Hearst International Cup” (the foremost prize for ice yachts carrying 450 square feet of sail) in 1914, with William serving as crew.

This story was edited and adapted from David Driscoll’s original Curators’ Favorites article. 


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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dhein, Orien. “Ice Yachting as a Hobby,” transcript of a talk broadcast on radio station WIBA, March 17, 1935.

William and Carl Bernard scrapbooks, 1895-1935 (Wisconsin Historical Society Archives call number M83-319).

1966 oral history interview with Carl Bernard (Archives Sound Holdings Tape 411A).

The Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club website.


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