The Grand Ice Palace Of 1896 Leadville Colorado

The Grand Ice Palace Of 1896 Leadville Colorado

Exterior front view of Leadville's Ice Palace built for the 1896 Winter Crystal Carnival in Colorado. The site is known as Capitol Hill, and is between West Seventh and West Eighth Streets from Spruce to Leiter. Architect C.E. Joy and Director General Wood designed the 320 x 450 foot Norman style medieval ice castle, which was constructed of twenty-two deep ice blocks cut from local lakes and rivers. Features include octagonal turrets, 90 feet high, with panelling and imitation battlements. A nineteen foot tall allegorical ice sculpture of a maiden pointing her right arm toward the mines east of town sits on a twelve foot high pedestal at the main entrance. She holds a scroll with gold letters $200,000,000 representing mining revenue produced through 1894. United States and Colorado state flags fly from poles on top of the turrets. Inside the castle was a skating rink, ballroom, restaurants, reception rooms, and museum exhibits.


Leadville Colorado boasts a population of over 40,000 residents.

The nation’s city in the sky was bustling with silver miners, smelting men, businessmen and families, all eaking out a healthy living.

To the towns misfortune, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 completely crippled Leadville.  The Act was originally enacted to ensure a determinant amount of silver was purchased by the U.S. Government.  Repealing this act meant repealing Leadville.

By 1895, the city patrons had their backs against the wall. The city was desperate. “Ruin and bankruptcy stared every mining man, every smelting man, and every businessman in the face,” reported the Herald Democrat.

Street scene of people dressed in winter coats and hats at a parade for the Ice Palace opening in Leadville (Lake County), Colorado. People are on horses or burros, in wagons, or beside commercial businesses. Signs read: "Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat" "Daly & Old Insurance" "Assayer and Chemist" and "Sam Erlich, Tailor."

Local Real Estate Agent Makes Good

Edward W. Senior, a Leadville Realtor had an idea that would have people scrambling through the Rockies, a major tourist attraction that would be sure to bring in the money.

Eureka! A Grand Ice Palace! Complete with it’s own restaurant, ballroom, olympic sized ice rink, live wildlife exhibits and carnival.

The idea was a winner and the extraordinary project took flight.

Hiring St. Paul Minnesota’s Winter Carnival Palace builder, Charles E. Jay, a site was chosen. The palace would be built on top of Capitol Hill, between Seventh and Eighth Streets, where it would dominate the cityscape.

C.E. Joy designed the rink and Cobble & Kerr built the 80 x 190 foot structure. A skater is on the ice below the trussed roof. Ice arches are along the edge of the rink and umbrella-shaped chandeliers hang fourteen feet above the ice with mutli- colored electric lights. An exhibit can be seen through the arch in the background.

November 1st, 1895. Construction Begins

A crew of 250 men worked around the clock to construct the 58,000 square-foot palace. Girders, trusses and massive amounts of timber were erected as the palace frame. 5,000 tons of ice would be needed. Hand sawed ice blocks were placed on sleighs and hauled from as far away as Palmer Lake near Colorado Springs, some 75 miles away.

View of rooms with voussoir arch doors and windows at the Ice Palace

New Year’s Day 1896 Opening Day

After much publicity and promotion, the Leadville Ice Palace had its big grand opening. More than 2,000 visitors arrived to marvel at the five-acre palace with its 90-foot high octagonal ice towers complete with turrets, a 20-foot wide promenade, electric lights frozen within the ice blocks, prismatic searchlights and 190-by 80-foot skating rink. A parade was held to celebrate the opening which featured the 2,000 member Miners Union, local dignitaries, the hockey club, firemen and other notables with an array of local citizens bringing up the rear.

Opening day entertainment was provided by the famous Dodge City Cowboy Band of Kansas. Parade Grand Marshall W. R. Harp took the first icy plunge down the toboggan run as part of the festival’s initiation. Later that evening a grand lighting ceremony was held, and thousands braved 22-degree temperatures to witness the spectacular lighting of the Ice Palace. 

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Admission to the Palace was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, which included use of the ballroom and skating rink. Season tickets were also available for repeat visitors. As a clever method of product display the restaurant had embedded food within the ice blocks. Red roses, even trout, were frozen within the clear ice blocks on the interior walls for visitors to gaze upon.

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Welcoming attendees at the main entrance was “Lady Leadville,” a 19-foot tall ice sculpture on a 12-foot ice pedestal – her right arm pointed to the once-prosperous mines to the east of town. Above her left arm was a scroll embossed with the figure $200,000,000 in raised gold figures, representing the revenues produced by the mines of the Carbonate Camp.

Independent vendors set up shop adjacent to the Ice Palace hoping to cash in on the attraction, including a Merry-Go-Round and the Palace of Living Arts and Illusions which featured poetry, theater and macabre illusions.

Townsfolk get into the act by decorating their homes, impressing every out of town visitor.  The three railroads servicing Leadville did their part as the rush to see the palace grew to capacity. Reservations came from across the country and the railroads jostled for positions to provide special accommodations and excursions.

Organizers kept the momentum going with featured events and competitions. The State Skating Championship Men’s Race was held at the palace that winter.

Fancy dress contests and a “Best Impersonation of President Grover Cleveland” competition required doling out prize money which had to be drawn from ticket receipts. Special days were held including Wheelman’s Day (for bicyclists), Stock Exchange Day – in which seats on the exchange were offered for sale – Colorado Press Day, Shriner’s Day, Irish Day, Western Slope Day (in conjunction with America Day and Salida Day) and Aspen Day, for residents of that prosperous mining community to the west. Even “Colored People” were recognized on February 24.

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But as fate would have it, March of 1896 brought unseasonably warm temperatures and lower attendance figures. The Palace actually began to melt as snow began receding from the mountainsides, and on March 28 the last official ceremony of the Winter Carnival was held.

A cost study was performed in the mid 1980s and it was determined that the estimated cost to build another Grand Ice Palace would exceed well over 30 million dollars.

Today you can visit Ice Palace Park in the 100 block of West Tenth St. commemorates the Ice Palace, and Crystal Carnival weekend is held every March in Leadville with events and a parade.

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All photos and photo titles from the Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public 

Weir, Darlene Godat: Leadville’s Ice Palace, A Colossus in the Colorado Rockies. Ice Castle Productions, 1994.

La Rocca, Lynda: The Leadville Ice Palace, a tourist attraction that melted. Colorado Central Magazine, March 1994.

Garner, Joe: Ice Palace capped riotous era. The Rocky Mountain News, May 1999.

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About J Steven: J Steven is a proud native Coloradoan born and raised here in Denver. His love for this city is refl...

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