The 1896 Crystal Carnival and Ice Palace gave Leadville, Colorado an economic boost after the silver panic of 1893 shuttered Leadville hotels and mines.
Leadville was a classic boom and bust mining town. Gold was discovered during the “Pikes Peak gold rush” of 1859, followed by rich silver ore in the early 1870s. By the mid-1880s Leadville was Colorado’s second largest city and the most famous silver mining camp on Earth. Leadville is famous as the home of Baby Doe Tabor and the Matchless Mine, and as the site of “Doc” Holliday’s last gunfight. Another fascinating story in Leadville’s past is that of the Winter Carnival of 1896 and the Leadville Ice Palace.
Hard Times for Leadville Hotel and Saloon Owners
In July 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed. The price of silver crashed from $1.60 per troy ounce to less than sixty cents per ounce. Mines went bankrupt and Leadville fell into an economic depression. Its 1893 population of over 40,000 dwindled to less than 15,000 by 1895.
In 1895 Leadville hotels and saloons were teetering on bankruptcy as mines closed down and miners left for more exciting territories. Three railroads served Leadville, but far more people left on the trains than arrived to spend money.
It was at this time of financial gloom that the idea of a great winter carnival featuring the world’s largest ice palace came to life. The town’s leaders hoped that the Crystal Carnival and Ice Palace would keep residents home for the winter, entice rail passengers to stop for a visit, and put Leadville on the map as an attractive tourist destination.
The Leadville Crystal Carnival and IcePalace
Construction of the Leadville Ice Palace began in late November of 1895, after the weather was cold enough to freeze the ice blocks together. Built based on a Norman castle design, the palace was built in less than forty days by about 300 skilled laborers. It was 320 feet wide and 450 feet long. 307,000 board feet of lumber and 5,000 tons of ice were used in its construction. It enclosed a skating rink, ballroom, and dining room, all with electric lighting. It had art and museum exhibits frozen into its walls. The total cost of the palace was about $35,000.
The Leadville Crystal Carnival and Ice Palace officially opened on New Year’s Day, 1896, and officially closed at the end of March, although many events were held on the grounds before the ice melted away in early summer. The carnival attractions included live music, dancing, art and museum exhibits, fireworks, toboggan slides, magic shows, equestrian shows, and even an indoor baseball game on the ice rink.
Visitors arrived from all over the country, Canada, Europe and other parts of the world. They kept the railroads busy and filled the local Leadville hotels and saloons. By the time the Crystal Carnival was over and the Ice Palace had melted into memory, Leadville had become world famous as not only a major silver mining center, but also as a city that could throw a very fine party.
Leadville Today is a Key Colorado Travel Destination
Today Leadville is a quiet mountain town with a permanent population of about 2700. It is a popular Colorado travel destination for hiking, camping, fishing and other outdoor sports. It is host to the annual Leadville Trail 100 ultra-marathon and the “Race Across the Sky,” a one hundred mile mountain bike race. Ski Cooper, at the summit of Tennessee Pass, is a ski area just a few miles north of the city.
- Leadville’s Ice Palace — A Colossus in the Rockies, by Darlene Godat Weir, Ice Castle Editions, Lakewood, Colorado 1994
- “Leadville, Colorado” official website