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.
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.
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 Bernard’s built, rented, and raced ice boats.
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.
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.
This story is part of the Curators’ Favorites Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Explore the whole collection here!