Leadville's Crystal Palace

Photo courtesy Denver Public Library

In the late Victorian era, cities from Montreal to Moscow simultaneously embarked on an unusual trend - erecting large 'ice palaces' as novel attractions during winter festivals. Constructed either partially or entirely of ice blocks harvested from frozen ponds and lakes, these structures more often than not played host to ice rinks.

One of the largest 'ice palaces', built in the failed gold boom town of Leadville, Colorado in November and December of 1895, had an 80 X 100 ice rink installed inside and employed over two hundred and fifty men in its construction. It cost upwards of twenty five thousand dollars to build - no paltry sum in 1895! Its construction was ordered through a bid process overseen by the Leadville Ice Palace and Carnival Association and carried out by Tingley S. Wood and Charles E. Jay, who had constructed a similar structure in St. Paul, Minnesota a decade earlier. One of the project's financiers was none other than James Joseph 'J.J.' Brown, the mining engineer husband of famous Titanic survivor 'The Unsinkable' Molly Brown.

The Crystal Palace was located between 7th and 8th Streets, approximately two blocks west of Harrison Avenue. The February 16, 1896 issue of the "New Castle News" reported, "'Palace' is a good name for the structure, as it is a palatial building. At a distance it might be mistaken for a castle built of opals. It is seen to the best advantage at night, when the electric lights, with different colored globes - illuminate its sides and towers, producing an effect never before seen, and only read of in the fairy tales of our childhood. The main entrance - at the north end - is approached by a flight of steps of ice, and guarded by the imposing statue of Leadville, which is also carved from ice. Entering through the turnstyles, visitors find themselves in the lobby. By turning to the left the ball room is reached; to the right the dining room. Following the wall, either way, you will find different exhibits such as fruits, flowers, meats, fished, bottled beer, and even patent medicines, frozen in large clear blocks of ice. A large picture of the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, with the pool and bath house, is thus on exhibition in a cake of ice. At one point you will find several stereopticons protruding from cakes of ice, and looking into them see views of different points of interest. At one end are a number of stuffed animals and birds... The ball room and dining room are each enclosed and heated by stoves. Between them is the skating rink. The side of each, looking on the rink, is entirely of glass and one may sit comfortably on either and watch the skaters. The rink floor is flooded every night, so that the ice is always smooth. If you care to skate there is a room where you can hire skates and a cloakroom where you can get wraps checked. If you cannot skate, you cannot fail to be amused in watching the skaters in their pretty skating costumes and toboggan suits, the latter of which are quite the rage with both sexes. On each side of the rink is a row of large square ice pillars, into which are built electric lights with different colored globes."

The Crystal Palace opened on New Year's Day, 1896, with a lavish carnival including a merry-go-round, skating party opened to the general public, costume carnival, music by the G.A.R. Drum Corps, hockey game, banquet and boy's skating race. The first prize for the race was "a suit of clothes"; the second a pair of skates. Skaters were advised they weren't permitted to participate in the festivities "unless en masque and in fancy dress or carnival costume." Local businesses closed up shop at noon so their employees could attend the spectacle.

On January 18, 1896, The Crystal Palace played host to a figure skating contest. The January 19, 1896 issue of the "Herald Democrat" reported, "The fancy skating contest brought out Otis Richmond, Alex Harvey, Jr. and Merritt P. Walley. These gentlemen went through the fancy figures with varying success, some of the figures being real feats of 'skatesmanship.' Richmond appeared to be in better training and more at ease than his competitors - though it must be said that Walley's evolutions were gracefully accomplished. Alex Harvey did not do his best work, being troubled with a weak ankle and requiring the skaters to execute all the figures without intermission, required too much endurance for Alex's weak ankle. Richmond was awarded first prize." Otis  A. Richmond wasn't your typical well-to-do Victorian figure skater. According to Ballenger & Richards' Annual Leadville City Directory's, he was once a miner.

From January to March of 1895, the Crystal Palace drew in more than twenty-five thousand visitors. Yet, instead of infusing the ailing local economy with some much-needed cash flow, the Crystal Palace's operating costs alarmed investors. In March, there was an early thaw and the building was condemned. Skaters continued to take to the ice rink until June, when it was no longer usable. Ultimately, the project's investors decided not to rebuild the following year and the Crystal Palace was abandoned.

Photo courtesy Denver Public Library

In December of 2009, a writer at the "Colorado Central Magazine" recalled, "Because of the continued depressed economy and a looming miner’s strike, the construction lumber was dismantled and resold. Some of the lumber was used for flooring in barracks erected for state militiamen who were brought in to quell the violence and rioting that were the result of the miners strike. While the strike was preoccupying the citizens of Leadville, the remainder of the Palace was demolished in October of 1896 and hopes for an annual carnival melted away as well."

Replica of the Leadville Crystal Palace. Photos courtesy Myles Gallagher, National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.

With the liquefication of the Leadville Crystal Palace, one of the most unique venues for a figure skating competition in history became a forgotten footnote in the halls of history. Today, the National Mining Hall Of Fame and Museum in Leadville houses a scale replica of this fascinating venue.

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