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Flashback Friday: St. Paul Winter Carnival debuts 134 years ago this week

The 1886 ice palace seen from the corner of Robert and Thirteenth Streets, looking toward
the northwest. Central Methodist Church is in the background to the left and the curling rink
is in the foreground. Schlattman Brothers & Ladd photo. Photo: Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
The 1886 ice palace seen from the corner of Robert and Thirteenth Streets, looking toward the northwest. Central Methodist Church is in the background to the left and the curling rink is in the foreground. Schlattman Brothers & Ladd photo.

Updated: January 31, 2020 11:52 AM

The St. Paul Winter Carnival is celebrating its 134th year in 2020. On Feb. 1, 1886, the first event opened in Central Park, where currently only a sign remains, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. 

The first Winter Carnival ice castle in the U.S. was built on the then-undeveloped space, which was originally created to accommodate the upscale neighborhood surrounding it. The Minnesota Historical Society states the palace measured 140 feet long, 120 feet wide and 100 feet high. It consisted of 20,000 blocks of ice.

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According to the St. Paul Winter Carnival's website, the winter festival is the oldest in the United States, predating the Tournament of Roses Festival in southern California by two years. 

The first Winter Carnival included competitions consisting of snowshoeing, skijoring, tobogganing, curling, skating and ice polo. King Boreas the First was crowned as the first royalty of the event. 


A.C. Hutchinson's ice palace design, featuring a central tower 100 feet high, represented in lithograph by the H.M. Smyth Printing Co., St. Paul, for a souvenir booklet published by the Saint Paul Ice Palace and Winter Carnival Association before the 1886 carnival.


In 1885, a New York correspondent called St. Paul "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation" during the winter season, according to historical archives. A group of local business owners decided to retaliate on that comment by creating a winter festival that would showcase all the beauty of Minnesota winters. Working with the city of Montreal, which already had a pre-existing winter carnival but suspended the event in 1886 due to a smallpox epidemic, St. Paul city leaders were able to lure the designer of Montreal's ice palaces of previous years to blueprint St. Paul's first ice castle. Alexander Hutchinson was the designer in Montreal in 1883, 1884 and 1885, according to the Winter Carnival's website.

Many items were adapted from the Montreal Festival, including royalty. The Ice King Borealis came from Manitoba to St. Paul in an ice-encased train car to take over the city as his winter playground. 

According to the Minneapolis Daily Tribune, "the ice palace was declared a thing of beauty and a good thing for the Northwest." Communities from across the state contributed additional ice to build the castle, such as White Bear Lake, Big Stone Lake, Glenwood, Wahpeton, Minnetonka, and even from North Dakota. It cost 25 cents to enter the massive ice building. 

At the time, St. Paul was one of the fastest-growing cities in North America, according to the Ramsey County Historical Society. 

Flashback Friday: 1946 Winter Carnival returns from wartime hiatus with boxer-turned-sheriff on the throne

The construction of the ice castle also drew crowds of people, with as many as 8,000 spectating the work on Jan. 25, 1886, according to the Ramsey County Historical Society. 

The Ramsey County Historical Society also goes into detail about what it was like to walk into the first ice palace:

"There were four grand entrances to the palace through which spectators passed through various apartments, halls, and corridors of solid, transparent ice and containing booths and displays of Minnesota resources. One reporter lamented that the interior sculptures could only be temporary. And perhaps one of the greatest marvels of all, the building was lit at night by about fifty large incandescent bulbs, making the ice palace one of the few buildings in St. Paul with electricity."

To this day, ice sculptures are still a part of the Winter Carnival. 

To compare ice palaces through the years at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, click here.

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Tommy Wiita

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