Leadville Ice Palace: Colorado’s Creation of 1895 and 1896

A year after Mark Twain filed for bankruptcy, a mammoth Leadville ice palace was planned in Leadville, Colorado. It came about when Leadville citizens decided to outshine nearby Denver and reinvigorate their long, cold winters. In addition, desperate townspeople wanted to create jobs as the once mining boom had fizzled. Similar ice structures had been constructed in St. Paul, Minnesota and Montreal, Canada, but Leadville citizens wanted their Leadville ice palace to dwarf all others by being three times as large as any other structure. Moreover, it was to be located that so that it overlooked the city.

Leadville ice palace

Photography of the Leadville ice palace in 1896. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Among those willing to undertake and support the costs of this proposed gigantic Leadville ice palace was James J. Brown, better known as the husband of the Unsinkable Molly Brown from the ill-fated Titanic sea liner. Brown was an Irish immigrant and he and Molly settled in Leadville, in a small two-room log cabin before moving to a two-bedroom house on 320 East Ninth Street. He thought an ice palace was just the thing that Leadville citizens needed and pledged $500 to get it going, which then spurred other miners to also pledge their hard earned cash. When the pledges and other funds were compiled it was reported that over $20,000 had been procured by Leadville citizens to build the ice palace that was to exist on 3.3 acres.

Of the new attraction that was to be built the Salt Lake Herald noted:

“Leadville’s great ice palace is attracting universal attention, and headquarters have been opened at the Albany hotel in Denver. Denver manufacturers promise liberal displays, and the roads are now coming to an agreement on low rates for the time it will last, the first three months of the year. Arrangements have been made with an artificial ice company for freezing exhibits in the blocks of ice, and it promises to be something gorgeous, as well as unique … and there can be no doubt but that the attendance will be all that Leadville could desire.”[1]

Colorado’s Daily Sentinel also reported:

“The ice palace is an enterprise illustrative of the enthusiasm of the Leadville people. No community could have done more to render it a success than have the residents of the Carbonate camp and their efforts should be cordially seconded and substantially sustained by the people of the state.”[2]

It was also reported that the Leadville ice palace was to be the “great social amusement” of the year.

“The present season marks a new era in the camp, in its recovery from the effects of the silver slump, and in its attaining new fame as a great gold producer. It also marks a temporary departure from the intense attention to mining and money getting that has possessed the people of camp for nearly decades. It tends toward an appreciation of the artistic, toward indulgence in amusement for amusement’s sake, and to a too infrequent recognition of the social side of life.”[3]

To erect the Leadville ice palace more than just a fortune was needed. According to the Topeka State Journal the ice palace would require somewhere around 15,000,000 pounds of ice. Further, all the ice had to be cut and stacked. That required a lot of workers and therefore between two-hundred and fifty and three-hundred hardy burly men were hired to work all day and all night creating the following result:

“A mammoth frame structure of wood 450 feet long by 350 feet wide [without a roof or windows] has been built and faced with walls of ice 22 inches wide. The ice blocks were laid one upon another, and frozen together after they had been moistened with boiling water.”[4]  

Leadville ice palace

Construction the Leadville ice palace. Author’s collections.

Initially there was talk that the Leadville ice palace would open on Christmas Day 1896, but that date was rescheduled to New Year’s Day 1896. The Director General, Tingley S. Wood, and organizers decided that the Leadville ice palace needed to operate for three months. That amount of time would not only generate a goodly profit for the town but also being open three months would justify it being rebuilt each year. Therefore, the first ice carnival was planned to last through the end of March.

To get visitors to and from the ice palace, the Rio Grande Western Railway decided run special trains and have special rates. These special fare tickets were sold on December 30th and December 31st from all its stations on its line to Leadville. The cost was the price of a one-way ticket to Leadville, so that mean that all riders received a free return trip. In addition, other special fare days were also planned.

One special fare day was Western Slope day. It was scheduled for Saturday, 22 February, the same day as President George Washington’s birthday.* However, before that happened a problem was discovered. There was a conflict between with Horticultural meeting planned on the same day in Glenwood. They could change the date but fortunately Western Slope day proved successful anyway and in fact papers later announced that it became the greatest money making day in the history of the carnival.

What visitors saw when they arrived at the Leadville ice palace was an ice building designed in the “Old Norman” style with eight towers. Its two largest towers measured 40 feet wide and 95 feet high while another two of the towers measured 60 feet high with a diameter of 30 feet each. The remaining towers were smaller. Furthermore, according to The Shreveport Journal:

“Its walls of solid ice blocks, each two feet thick, are 35 feet high, with octagonal sides 3 1/2 feet thick; … A complete wooden building stands inside the ice walls, with lofty pillars and arched roof, and intended to remain permanently. The pillars are all encased in solid walls of transparent ice ― so clear one can almost read through them ― and none of the woodwork is visible to the eye.”[5]

Leadville ica palace

Leadville ice palace drawing. Author’s collection.

The main entrance to the building was on Eighth street and when visitors approached this front entrance, they were greeted by a figure representing “Leadville.” She was a statue of snow and ice, 20 feet tall wearing a crown of electric lights and pointing towards the hills from where $200,000,000 worth of ore had been mined. In addition:

“A score of small ice statues adorn[ed] the interior, representing the mining prospector in different phases of his work, and his ever faithful and indispensable companion, the burro – or ‘Rocky mountain canary’ – as he [was] facetiously dubbed on account of his melodious voice.”[6]

The main attraction inside the Leadville ice palace was the amazing skating rink that occupied the main part of the interior. It had a surface area of 15,000 square feet and with its electric lights was claimed to “sparkle like diamonds.” Spectators could also enjoy themselves and remain warm and comfortable while watching the skaters. A further description was provided by The Shreveport Journal:

“The ceiling, 35 feet above it, is coated with frost, and long festoons of incandescent lights descend over the glassy surface. One thousand of these lights and 85 arc lamps make an immense illumination, increased by the light refracted in rainbow hues from the ice on every side. Calcium and powerful search lights cross their great shafts and combine to make a scene of unequaled splendor. A promenade encircles the rink.”[7]

On the opposite side of the rink on the west side of the building was a grand ball-room reported to have a floor of “grooved Texas pine” and to be “50 by 80 feet, with walls and ceilings daintily tinted.”[8] There was also a banquet hall, cloak room, and other apartments that included several rooms where visitors could warm themselves. In addition, various exhibits were placed in the major towers for visitors to explore.

The exhibits had all sort of things frozen into the walls with one of the more interesting items being sent arriving from the Adolph Coors brewery that operated out of Golden Colorado and had been founded in 1873. Special beer bottles were to be encased in the walls and to prevent them from breaking they were filled with saltwater and colored to look like beer. In addition, an extra case of 24 bottles was shipped in case of breakage.

There were also many other things to see and enjoy at the Leadville event as pointed out by the weekly periodical The Illustrated American:

“A museum annex has a lot of snow statuary carved out of snow slushed solidly and then sprayed, and exhibits of fruit, flowers, and mechanical appliances in sold cakes of ice. A programme of divertisements throughout the winter on an elaborate scale has been planned, and a season of festivities, glittering pageantry, and winters sports has been inaugurated. … Various gala and occasional days have been set, and brilliant balls and receptions will be given from time to time.”[9]

Outside the Leadville ice palace, a street had been closed and room made for a massive toboggan slide that was said to be two miles long. It was touted as the largest double toboggan slide every constructed and it was noted that “at each end of the slide of the toboggan slide are two-story frame buildings, equipped with comfortable waiting-rooms: and unlike the old-time style of coasting … the patrons of this exhilarating sport will not have to walk a step.”[10]

The Shreveport Journal also noted all the “brilliant gatherings” that were planned to happen during the ice palace and the carnival’s three-month opening:

“There will be … famous skaters, hockey, lacrosse, curling and golf matches, ring tournaments, ice bicycles, Scottish turners, and other attractions in the ball-rooms in the rink; while outside snow-shoe clubs and sleighing and toboggan parties will make merry – the climax of the carnival being reached in the storming of the castle with fireworks.”[11]  

Everything sounded wonderful for a long and successful carnival. Unfortunately, a thaw in early March helped to seal the carnival’s fate and so it did not last as expected. The palace was condemned on 28 March 1896, but it was left to melt away leaving behind the remnants of its wooden structure. In the meantime, ice skaters continued to skate on the 5,000 tons of ice used to create the rink until by June that melted away too.

Over the three months that the Leadville ice palace was open it welcomed some 250,000 visitors, much less that the number who attended England’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations held in 1851 or the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1855. In addition, the grand success that investors and Leadville citizens had so hoped for never materialized. In fact, the event proved to be a financial disaster and without a profit no one was willing to plan a future carnival or build another Leadville ice palace in coming years.

Photograph of Leadville, Colorado in 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


*According to the Julian calendar Washington was born on 11 February 1732 and when it changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 his birthday moved to 22 February.

References:

  • [1] The Salt Lake Herald, “Leadville’s Great Ice Palace,” December 6, 1895, p. 3.
  • [2] The Daily Sentinel, “Western Slope Day,” February 3, 1896, p. 1.
  • [3] Leadville’s Crystal Carnival, 308th ed. XIX (New York, 1896); The Illustrated American, p. 34.
  • [4] Topeka State Journal, “Leadville’s Mammoth Ice Palace,” December 31, 1895, p. 2.
  • [5] The Shreveport Journal, “Leadville Ice Carnival,” January 12, 1896, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The Illustrated American, p. 34.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 2.

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