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The Leadville Ice Palace, a tourist attraction that melted

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local lore – March 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Depressed metal prices meant that there might be more nostalgia than production in the Leadville Mineral Belt. Civic leaders decided to promote tourism; to draw free-spending visitors, they built a tourist attraction.

Though this sounds like recent history, we’re talking 1895 rather than 1985.

With the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, Leadville’s silver mines lost their government subsidy. Hundreds left the Cloud City for booming Cripple Creek as smelters closed and unworked mines began to fill with water.

Even so, Leadville remained the second-largest city in Colorado in 1895. Its gold mines were running, base metals like zinc and lead were showing a profit, State Street still offered vice at reasonable rates, and its 12,000 residents never did anything in a small way.

They demanded the biggest and best, and so it was little wonder that when they built their tourist attraction, the Leadville Ice Palace, it was the largest and most expensive man-made ice structure known to history.

For reasons which are not difficult to understand even today, the idea came from a real-estate agent, Edward W. Senior, who suggested an ice palace and winter carnival to bolster the city’s sagging spirits and economy.

It wasn’t an original idea; the first ice palace was erected in 1883 in Montreal, and another soon followed in St. Paul, Minn. But Leadville would outdo them with the only ice palace ever designed as a permanent, year-round structure — a focal point for winter carnivals, and a public meeting hall during the six or seven weeks of Leadville summer.

The organizers knew that such a palace would not be cheap. Senior estimated costs at $12,000 and began soliciting donations. He resigned after raising only $4,000, though, and Tingley S. Wood, a businessman, took over.

Wood raised the target to $20,000. “If the citizens of Leadville raise the necessary $20,000,” he promised, “I will personally take care of the Ice Palace.” Little did Wood realize what that promise would cost him.

Stock in the project was sold at $1 per share. More than $40,000 was raised by Christmas Day of 1895, but by then costs had risen to well over $60,000 — and the palace was still not finished.

Wood had met with unanticipated problems. He needed more than 5,000 tons of ice — enough to fill 50 modern railroad cars — but in this city with a climate described as “10 months winter and two months late fall,” he was faced with an ice shortage. Nature, playing the first of her tricks, had ushered in a very mild winter.

After exhausting local ponds, Wood decided to haul ice from Palmer Lake (on Monument Hill between Denver and Colorado Springs), 150 miles round-trip from the palace. The ice had to be hand-sawed into crude blocks, dragged to shore with large hooks, and loaded onto sleds. Despite the distance, 24 horse teams managed to haul about 12 tons a day.

Work progressed smoothly until late November, when nature struck again. Temperatures rose into the balmy 60s — and Wood spent $5,000 of his own money for 10,000 yards of canvas to drape over the half-built palace. Luckily, night temperatures dipped below freezing, and disaster was averted.

The three-acre Leadville Ice Palace finally opened in dazzling splendor on Jan. 1, 1896, to more than 2,000 visitors. The palace was almost twice the size of a football field, with solid ice walls five feet thick. At the main entrance were two octagonal ice towers, each 90 feet tall, 40 feet in diameter, and decorated with turrets and battlements. Six slightly shorter, circular towers, topped by colorful, fluttering flags, rose from the back and corners.

Lady Leadville, an imposing 19-foot ice sculpture, stood on a 12-foot ice pedestal at the main entrance, her right arm outstretched with one finger pointing toward the mountains and Leadville’s rich mines. An ice scroll in her left hand proclaimed in raised gold letters the mines’ output — a staggering $200 million, most it from almost 6,000 tons of silver.

The main feature of the interior was a 190- by 80-foot skating rink. The rink room resembled a giant ice cave, with frosted ice walls and icicles dripping from the ceiling. Electric lights frozen into pillars and walls made the ice sparkle like fine-cut crystal. A multi-colored searchlight — a notable attraction in 1896 — bathed both ice and skaters in a shimmering glow.

Glass walls separated the rink from a ballroom and restaurant. The ballroom and restaurant were each 80 feet long, 50 feet wide, and heated. Restaurant patrons chose from full-course meals or concession-stand fare — or just browsed among souvenir booths. A novel form of advertising — food from pickles to juicy steaks frozen into the clear ice walls — lured many a stroller to a restaurant table.

Visitors danced each night to polkas, waltzes, and the lively “Leadville Ice Palace Quickstep.” Artists, businesses, and manufacturers from around the country displayed everything from clothing, jewelry, beer, newspapers, and household goods to blooming flowers, shellfish, and mounted specimens of bear, fox, and mountain lion.

Contests were held, and cash prizes awarded for such distinctions as the best impersonation of President Grover Cleveland. Rounding out the attractions was a riding gallery, complete with a children’s carousel, connected to the Ice Palace by a 27-foot bridge of ice. Nearby were two toboggan slides, each nearly a quarter-mile long. Fireworks lit the night sky, drenching palace walls in red, green, blue, and gold.

Although thousands visited Leadville’s Crystal Carnival, local merchants were disappointed. Tourists, expected to stay several days, arrived on morning trains and left that afternoon. Even low rail fares and discount packages didn’t attract overnight visitors.

The festive atmosphere prevailed through January and February, but then Nature played her last prank. Leadville experienced an unprecedented early thaw. By mid-March, the Ice Palace began to melt.

Although the venture raised about $100,000, it was a financial failure. Construction overruns and generous prize money absorbed initial donations and potential profits. Wood, who spent $22,000 of his own money, was not enthusiastic about future palaces. The local newspaper reported that “If Mr. Wood had his way about it, he would blow the Ice Palace off the face of Capitol Hill.”

Hopes of using the palace frame on a year-round basis melted almost as quickly as the ice. In June 1896, a violent miners’ strike erupted as the Western Federation of Miners demanded $3 a day for local miners who had been getting only $2.50.

As usual during labor wars of that era, the state militia was mustered to a local encampment, and sections of the palace were converted into barracks. The skating rink, ballroom, and restaurant were offered for sale or lease — with no takers. In October, 1896, the Ice Palace was dismantled, victim of an ugly strike and the vagaries of nature.

Today, the palace is remembered each year with the annual Crystal Carnival, March 4-6 this year. At 5 p.m. on March 5, Darlene Weir will present a slide show about the palace at the Delaware Hotel. Her book about the palace will be published next summer, and palace memorabilia will be on display.

You might also be able to sled along the Ice Palace Toboggan Run, which stretched down West Seventh Street from Spruce to Harrison. The Palace entrance faced West Eighth between Leiter and Maple; the site is a residential neighborhood now.

And one wonders if, on a winter evening, anyone ever drives along and sees, not houses and icy streets, but a palace of crystal ice that sparkles like diamonds against an ebony sky.

Lynda La Rocca of Leadville writes for many magazines which pay better than Colorado Central.