The Royal Ice Factory: history of the pre-industrial complex

«When the big silo was full of ice,
the adjoining silo was full of gold coins.»
News of the Royal Ice Factory date back to 1747, when the partners João Rose and Pedro Fracalanza asked the king for a concession to supply and sell snow in Lisbon. They then decided to build this pre-industrial unit in Serra de Montejunto, taking advantage of the unique climatic conditions and the advantageous proximity to the capital. What can be seen of the factory today is merely a section of its total area in full operation, which spanned over a hundred years. In 1782, the complex gained new life, now in the hands of Julião Pereira de Castro, chief snow trader of the Royal House and responsible for the expansion and modernization of the facilities. It is known, for example, that there was another zone of freezing tanks, which disappeared, in the middle of the 20th century, during the construction of the neighbouring military installations. The activities in the Royal Ice Factory finally came to an end in 1885. In 1930, the property ended up being expropriated for public use, and the factory was forgotten for decades.
Producing ice was an arduous task that took place between the months of September and February. When, during the glacial mountain nights, the «caramel» formed in the tanks, the factory guard would go down on horseback to the village of Pragança and ring a bell to wake up the men – who then went up the mountain, on foot, to start the work. They broke and removed the heavy plaques of ice from the tanks, and transported them on the back, in baskets, up the slope to the silo building, where they were stored until the beginning of the summer season, in June. All this had to be completed before sunrise. The men from Pragança slept attentively to the sound of the bell, because in the factory there was only work for those who arrived first. The mountain community needed this source of income, just as Lisbon’s nobility and high society needed ice to cool off in the summer. Much sought after by the elites, the «white gold» was commercially appealing and contributed to the economic and social development of Serra de Montejunto.

Plan of an ice production system, supposedly of Serra de Montejunto’s factory (unda-ted). Collection of the National Library Foundation, Brazil.

Aerial view of Quinta da Serra, in Serra de Montejunto (photo taken on December 10, 1952). Portuguese Geographic Institute.

Sketch showing the two distinct construction phases of the freezing tanks: orange is phase 1; blue is phase 2.

Plan of the Ice Factory complex at Serra de Montejunto, showing the extraction wells and respective equipment (in orange); the reservoir and the freezing tanks (in blue); the circuit of extracted ice until it reaches the storage silos (in green); the starting point for ice distribution (in red).