Leadville’s Ice Palace, by Darlene Godat Weir

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Local History – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville’s Ice Palace: A Colossus in the Colorado Rockies
by Darlene Godat Weir
Ice Castle Editions
ISBN 0-9637431-0-4

LEADVILLE, THE FRONTIER WEST’S wildest silver camp, never did anything halfway. So in 1895, when its citizens decided to build an Ice Palace, the centerpiece of what was envisioned as a tourist-attracting, profit-producing winter carnival, it had to be the world’s biggest and best.

And it was — for a little while. Ironically, an early spring thaw precipitated the Ice Palace’s premature demise and by March, 1896, the party was over.

The project proved to be a financial disaster. Construction cost overruns and too-generous prizes awarded for contests ranging from the best fancy dress made from newspapers to the best impersonation of President Grover Cleveland, had absorbed any potential profits.

Still, as Leadville banker A.V. Hunter replied when asked whether he regretted participating in the venture, “I’ve never heard of a man complaining of paying for a good time, and I’ll tell you…we had one good time!”

Hunter undoubtedly had a better time at the real Ice Palace than readers will while struggling through Darlene Godat Weir’s excruciatingly detailed account of it.

At 391 pages (including index and bibliography), Weir’s self-published tome is an unfocused, repetitious, confusing jumble of lists and miscellany strung together with little sense of chronology, continuity or cohesiveness.

Weir has apparently included every scrap of information discovered during 13 years of research, without regard for its importance, usefulness, or relevance to the reader. For instance, is it necessary, or even interesting, to repeatedly list the names of ordinary citizens entered in dozens of carnival contests, along with unknown band members, board members, and members of fraternal organizations?

Conversely and unfortunately, genuine luminaries who contributed to or visited the Ice Palace receive scant attention. Among those slighted are J.J. Brown, husband of the “unsinkable” Mollie; mining mogul John F. Campion, a founding father of the Denver Museum of Natural History; Jacob Sands, Baby Doe Tabor’s companion between her marriages to Harvey Doe and silver baron and Leadville founder H.A.W. Tabor; and well-known Western photographer, William Henry Jackson.

Statements like the following, appearing on page 66, raise questions about the accuracy of the entire book: “The Cloud City, that for forty years had been buried in winter snows and enveloped in dark depression, was getting ready to shed that cloak of gloom and put on the dazzling colors of Leadville’s winter carnival.”

Forty years prior to 1895-1896 takes us to 1855 when Leadville, founded in 1878, did not even exist. From 1878 to 1893, more than $200 million in silver, lead, and gold was extracted from the mines surrounding the city. These were Leadville’s glory years, hardly a time in which “dark depression” enveloped the city. “Gloom” did, indeed, descend on Leadville, but not until 1893, less than three years before the Ice Palace, when the federal government repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and ceased underwriting the price of silver.

Weir can be unintentionally funny, as in this intriguing comment (page 289): “There was no costume deigned worthy of a prize for the most comical character so the judges awarded $5 to Miss Laura Holcomb.”

She can also be painfully politically incorrect (page 267): “The Colored people were honored on February 24th.”

Weir’s book does contain some fine historical photographs, along with nineteen pages of exuberant Ice Palace poetry written by witnesses to the event. She has also unearthed some interesting tidbits of Ice Palace history, including material on a “Stock Exchange Day” held in its icy interior. But at the conclusion of the book, readers still do not know how many people actually visited the Ice Palace or how much was made and lost on the entire winter carnival venture, and have only vague ideas of the cost of the Ice Palace construction.

Weir has gathered a great deal of potentially fascinating material; it’s a shame she didn’t know what to do with it.

— Lynda La Rocca