135th History: History of the Ice Palaces

In North America, Montreal was the first great city to create an Ice Palace. However when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Montreal in 1885, St. Paul leaders moved quickly to build a palace here in hopes to attract tourism to St. Paul. To date, the St. Paul Winter Carnival has built 37 Ice Palaces, all of different shapes and sizes. Ice Palaces only appear every 10-15 years and coincide with major events, like the 2018 SuperBowl. 

Did You Know?!

  • A Sioux Indian Village was also set up by the ice palace to demonstrate the life and culture of the
    Native Americans in the area. The Sioux Indian Village also featured a number of tepees. 
  • A massive ice palace was planned for 1889 (and 1890) but all plans were cancelled due to the unseasonably warm weather and limited ice blocks available.
  • In 1918, notable author, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned the short story “Ice Palace” based on the palaces from 1916 and 1917.
  • During the pre-World War II period, ice palaces were built every year. Notable architect Cap Wigington was the nation’s first black municipal architect serving 34 years as St Paul’s senior designer and who had a hand in designing ice palaces in 1937, 1940, 1941, and 1942. Over 60 of his buildings are still standing in St Paul and a number of them have received designation on the National Register of Historic Places!
  • In 1975, after 6 years of “snow” palaces, Winter Carnival historian Bob Olsen decided it was time for another ice palace. With his enthusiasm, Mr. Olsen raised the money and coordinated all the labor to construct his medieval castle located on Harriet Island.
  • The bicentennial celebrations around the United States were in full swing in 1976 including the Winter Carnival. Organizers attempted to design a “modern version” of the 1886 ice palace but given the limited budget of $20,000 and only 2,000 blocks used in 1976 compared to the 20,000 blocks used in 1886, the design was underwhelming.
  • 1986 marked the 100th anniversary of the Winter Carnival and naturally an ice palace was needed to commemorate this event. Volunteers from around the State converged on Phalen (Lake) Park to build the world’s highest (129’ 9”) structure made of ice. The carnival was extended to 3 weeks to take advantage of all the visitors to St Paul. At the end of the carnival, the structure was too tall for the Vulcans to symbolically destroy so they borrowed a fire truck and sprayed the ice palace with red dye.
  • The Winter Carnival in 1988 included another ice palace on Harriet Island but this time organizers included a huge volcano that would routinely erupt with a huge image of a Vulcan rising out of the mountain.

A Glimpse into Some of the 37 Ice Palaces (click-thru)…

1887 Ice Palace Poster

Do you remember the 1992 Ice Palace?

More Great Resources

Looking for more great history about the Saint Paul Winter Carnival? Visit the Minnesota Historical Society’s online database and the Ramsey County Historical Society’s online database and search, “Winter Carnival.”

Thank you and credit to the Minnesota Historical Society; the Ramsey County Historical Society; archives of the Pioneer Press and “Fire and Ice” by Moira Harris for helping contribute to this collection of 135th History! Also, thank you to Winter Carnival’s own, Tom Barrett, for helping us digitize all this history!