Prospectors looking to find their fortunes in gold flocked to the old west and many did find wealth. Leadville, Colorado started with the gold rush, but gold soon disappeared and new discoveries of lead and silver brought the town back to life. Indeed, Leadville revived several times before it settled into the town it is today.
The Cloud City is Born
When Leadville was incorporated, it was considered the highest city in the world at 10,430 feet. Often called “Cloud City,” the little settlement began in 1859 when gold was discovered in the area of what is called California Gulch. At the time, the settlement was called Oro City and claimed a population of 5,000.
Gold quickly played out and the miners left for other mining camps that were springing up throughout the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide. In 1875, Oro City had a second boom when carbonate of lead with a high concentration of silver was discovered in the sands. Prospectors hurried back by the thousands; and in 1878 Leadville was incorporated.
The Ice Palace Built to Revive Economy
Lead and silver made the owners of the mines such as Horace Tabor wealthy, producing millions of dollars annually. The town thrived, reaching a population of about 60,000 in 1893. By 18Credit: photo by unknown96 the mines produced more than 200 million dollars in ore.
However, 1893 dealt another blow to the town. The United States moved to the gold standard and this created a depression in the area as silver became devalued. Most of the silver mines closed and all of the smelters except one closed as well. Although another significant gold deposit was discovered in the area; the economy was only revived for a short time.
The businessmen in Leadville reached a decision to entice people to come to their town, create jobs and rescue the town from economic ruin. In 1895 they began construction on a massive ice structure emulating a medieval castle; the biggest ever built in the United States.
The Crystal Palace covered 58,000 square feet and was made from 5,000 tons of ice cut from the area lakes and over 100,000 board feet of lumber. In 36 days a crew of 250 men working day and night completed the construction of the magnificent structure. It had 90 feet tall towers, ice sculptures, and colored electrical lights that sparkling against the ice.
The castle was fully functional, containing an ice rink, a dining room, a grand ballroom, a snack bar and kitchen, multi-purpose room, cloakrooms, storerooms, a riding gallery that had a carousel, a mini-theater, gambling rooms and even a toboggan run. With the exception of the ice rink, all rooms were heated. Roses and trout were frozen into the blocks of ice for decoration. An ice sculpture of a woman pointing to the mines welcomed visitors.
Unfortunately, Leadville had an early thaw in March of 1896 and on March 28, 1896 the palace was officially closed. During the opening period (December, 1895-March 1896) the Crystal Palace had over 250,000 visitors. However, this was not enough to revive the town’s economy and the investors in the castle lost money as well. The palace didn’t completely thaw until that summer; the skating rink the last to go in June of 1896.
Leadville, Colorado Still an Old West Treasure
In 1899 the Ice Palace Inn was built using some of the lumber from the original Crystal Palace. In 1994, the inn was restored and is now a bed and breakfast with rooms named after some of the original Ice Palace rooms: The Grand Ballroom Suite, The Skating Rink, The Crystal Carnival, The King’s Tower, and Lady Leadville. The inn is located near the hill where the beautiful castle sat.
The current population of Leadville is just under 3,000. It is a town steeped in history and continues to hold the charm of the old towns of the west. It is worthy of a visit for any historian or vacationer who simply loves the beauty of the Colorado mountains.
Cosine.com “Leadville Ice Palace-A Look Back” (accessed April 19, 2010)
icepalaceinn.com (accessed April 16, 2010)
The copyright of the article “Silver and Ice in Old West Town of Leadville, Colorado” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.