The Leadville Ice Palace was an enormous, ice-walled building with an exterior in the style of a Norman castle and an interior comprising a large skating rink and two ballrooms. Proposed and constructed in late 1895, the Ice Palace hosted a Crystal Carnival from January 1 to March 28, 1896, before its ice walls melted and its wooden structure was dismantled. Intended to draw tourists and revive Leadville’s economy, the Ice Palace struggled with high costs and mild weather that made it a financial failure.
The Idea of an Ice Palace
The purpose of the Leadville Ice Palace was to stimulate the economy of a city facing stagnation. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Leadville had been the biggest mining boomtown in Colorado, minting many silver millionaires such as Horace Tabor. By the 1890s, however, the town’s fortunes were in decline. Although the mining district’s production continued to increase, the value of that production had decreased since the early 1880s. The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act closed many local mines. The population shrank from nearly 40,000 during the boom years to only 15,000 by 1895.
To counter these negative economic trends, a local real estate developer named Edwin W. Senior argued that the city should host a winter carnival centered around a giant ice palace. Inspired by ice palaces that had drawn crowds to Montreal in 1883 and to St. Paul, Minnesota, for several winters since 1886, Senior believed that building an ice palace in Leadville would revive the local economy by creating construction jobs and attracting tourists who would spend money at restaurants and hotels.
By September 1895, Senior’s Ice Palace plan had garnered substantial local support, including $2,500 in funding. On September 23, Leadville residents gathered at Weston’s Opera House (formerly the Tabor Opera House) to form an association that would raise money to build the Ice Palace and stage the winter carnival. With Senior as its general manager, the association advertised for architectural plans and ice suppliers. It also selected a site—the 400 block between West Seventh and West Eighth Streets, on a hill overlooking downtown—and leased the land from Lake County for one dollar per year. The lease ran several years because Senior hoped the wooden structure of the Ice Palace would become permanent. In the winter, ice walls and a skating rink would be installed, while in the summer, the wooden structure would house a dance floor and host public meetings and other local events.
But Senior would not see his plans through to completion. He proved unable to rally local businessmen to support the Ice Palace and stepped down from the association on October 24. The next evening, Leadville residents met at the Vendome Hotel to select mine manager Tingley S. Wood as the project’s new leader. Wood accepted the position and moved quickly to place the Ice Palace on firmer footing. He established a financial committee headed by local banker Charles Limberg; secured financial support from Leadville’s mines, banks, and saloons; and on November 7 incorporated the Ice Palace organization as the Leadville Crystal Carnival Association.
Building the Ice Palace
Meanwhile, the association had hired St. Paul architect Charles E. Joy, who had designed several ice palaces in his hometown, to oversee the Leadville project. He arrived on November 6, and construction started almost immediately as the association raced to erect the largest ice structure ever built in North America in time for a Christmas opening. Once the land was cleared, local contractors William Coble and William Kerr quickly constructed the interior framework of wood and steel. They finished in time for the ice-block cornerstone to be laid on November 25.
Over the next month, workers built an enormous Norman-style castle out of ice. The finished building was 450 feet long and 320 feet wide, with five-foot-thick walls. Ninety-foot towers flanked the north entrance, while sixty-foot towers anchored the south wall. The ice was supplied by the Leadville Ice Company, which cut huge blocks from its own ponds north of the city as well as from Evergreen Lakes near the Leadville National Fish Hatchery and from Palmer Lake on the Front Range. Horse-drawn sleds carried giant blocks of ice to Leadville, where Canadian ice cutters shaped them for construction. As workers stacked the ice blocks into walls, they sprayed the walls with water, which froze and acted like mortar to hold the individual blocks together.
Unseasonably warm weather made a Christmas opening impossible. In early December, daytime highs in Leadville hit the mid-sixties —summer temperatures at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet—and the partially completed Ice Palace had to be covered with a giant canvas to prevent it from melting. Costs soared as workers rushed at the end of December to prepare the palace for a New Year’s Day debut.
The Crystal Carnival
On January 1, 1896, a parade of association officials, local politicians, miners, and firemen marked the start of the Leadville Crystal Carnival. Some 2,500 people streamed toward the Ice Palace to witness its grand opening. The main entrance, which faced north onto West Eighth Street, remained incomplete, but it would eventually feature a prominent ice-sculpture statue of “Lady Leadville” with one arm pointing east to the mining district and the other arm holding a scroll inscribed with the figure of $200 million in gold lettering, representing the value of all the metals that Leadville’s mines had produced.
Adults paid fifty cents to enter the Ice Palace, and children’s admission cost a quarter. Inside, they could circulate among three halls of entertainment. The central and largest hall contained a 16,000-square-foot skating rink, which was illuminated by electric lights frozen into pillars of ice. On either side of the skating rink lay large, heated ballrooms, each measuring eighty feet by fifty feet. The skating rink and the Grand Ballroom, on the east side of the building, each had a balcony where bands could play. The Auxiliary Ballroom on the west side of the building functioned mostly as a restaurant. In an ingenious form of marketing, the restaurant froze sample menu items in the ice walls for prospective diners to see, and throughout the building, other Ice Palace sponsors—railroads, hotels, newspapers, breweries, and so on—had their own advertising displays suspended in the crystal-clear ice walls.
During the Crystal Carnival, Leadville did all it could to attract out-of-town visitors. Railroads offered special rates to the city, and the carnival’s themed days—Salida Day, Shriner’s Day, Colorado Press Day, and so on—attempted to draw people from specific locations, organizations, and professions. Events such as fireworks shows, skating races, hockey tournaments, curling matches, and rock-drilling contests gave people a special reason to come to the Ice Palace, while a children’s carousel, a theater, and a toboggan slide along West Seventh Street provided additional amusement.
Nevertheless, the Ice Palace failed to fulfill its planners’ hopes for economic revitalization. Tourism to the palace did not translate into spending at local businesses. Instead of dining in nearby restaurants and staying in Leadville hotels, most out-of-town visitors arrived on the morning train, sack lunch in hand, and spent only a few hours at the Ice Palace before leaving the same afternoon.
A warm fall had delayed the Ice Palace’s construction, and an early spring hastened its demise. Summer temperatures arrived already in the middle of March. Soon it became clear that the palace would not last, and on March 28, 1896, it welcomed its final crowd. The skating rink remained in use until May while the ice walls gradually melted away.
Edwin Senior’s original plan for the Ice Palace had called for a permanent structure to serve as a dance hall and meeting space in the summer and an ice-walled skating rink in the winter. The economic disappointment of the Ice Palace’s first winter largely ended such talk, however, and the paltry crowds at a baseball game and other events hosted at the palace structure that spring did nothing to revive it. Any lingering dreams of future winter carnivals died for good after June 1896, when Leadville miners went on strike for better pay. That September, outbuildings around the Ice Palace and parts of the palace itself were torn down and used to build barracks for militiamen sent in to suppress the striking miners. The rest of the palace structure was demolished in October 1896.
After the Ice Palace was gone, it lived on in Leadville’s memory even as the site of the structure disappeared under residential construction. In 1985, when the city was struggling in the wake of the Climax molybdenum mine closure, some residents suggested building another ice palace to attract tourists. Projected costs of $30 million deterred the city from pursuing the plan. A decade later, in 1996, the city contemplated building a quarter-size replica of the Ice Palace to mark its centennial, but again the idea foundered because of funding concerns.
Today the Ice Palace is commemorated in the name of Leadville’s Ice Palace Park, located about a quarter-mile northeast of the actual Ice Palace site, as well as in the city’s annual Crystal Carnival weekend in early March.