The Story Behind the 1886 Birth of St. Paul, MN’s Winter Carnival
An effort to fight the negative opinion of the city’s winter season led to a celebration that continues well over a century later
In the last half of the 19th century, the city of St. Paul gained a reputation as a beautiful summer destination but a horrible place to be in the winter. In 1885 a New York reporter, upon returning home after visiting the area, wrote that Minnesota was “another Siberia, unfit for human hibernation in the winter.” On October 31, 1885, a group of “about fifty or sixty” leading local business people met at the Ryan Hotel. They discussed ways to promote the winter splendor of the area. They hoped to show that the city was a fantastic place to be year-round.
The group settled on holding a winter carnival and building an Ice Palace. They hoped to replicate the success that the city of Montreal had found after their first winter carnival in 1883. These proprietors felt a celebration would show the year-round value of the town. Not only would it promote the area, but it was a chance to advertise the toughness of the cities citizens. It would be “worth a great deal of money.” They felt that a carnival would turn winter into one of “continuous enjoyment.”
Business leaders felt they needed a grand reason for people to come to the area to take part in their winter celebration. They decided that they would have a massive ice castle built. It would be the attraction at the center of everything, with an interior housing “booths of all kinds and stands for bands and orchestras.” The structure would be modeled after Europe’s grand palaces, with ambitions to replicate their “pleasing and substantial architecture.” It would be “illuminated with electricity” and have emblematic and fantastic shapes frozen into the ice. The finished castle would stand one hundred and forty feet long, have thirty-foot walls, and boast a tower reaching one hundred twenty feet into the sky.
The coalition of business leaders approved the measure of business leaders. They determined that 12,000 dollars would be enough money to raise the grand structure (the actual build cost was $5210). The building cost was high, but everyone in attendance felt it was realistic for what they hoped to accomplish. Easy accessibility to lots of ice and a climate that would preserve the palace for a prolonged time were additional benefits. The St. Paul Winter Carnival and Ice Palace Association would raise the money by selling stocks at $10 per share. Central Park would eventually be named the location of the ornate castle of ice for the coming winter. The palace would give people from everywhere “something to gaze on.”
While the ice castle was considered the centerpiece of the Winter Carnival idea, it was far from its entirety. Winter-themed events were soon planned to flesh out the entire celebration of the season. The city would do everything possible “to make everybody have a good time.” They would offer ice skating, tobogganing, snowshoeing, and much more. There would be ornate parties, balls, and booths and businesses of all kinds. A small admission fee, “slight on ordinary days, with an increase on days when there would be special entertainment,” would be charged to help recoup costs.
Public opinion of a winter carnival was initially mixed. Some felt a cold-weather celebration would be a “pleasant diversion” from frigid temperatures that would bring people from all over to see the winter splendor of St. Paul. However, naysayers believed it was foolish to call attention to the city’s harsh winter conditions. The Carnival Association pushed forward. On November 2, 1885, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce announced that a winter festival grander than Mardi Gras would soon come to Minnesota’s capital city.
On December 2, the Winter Carnival group met to discuss the status of preparations. The excitement of the upcoming event reverberated around the city. The group had already netted 10,610 dollars toward their 12,000-dollar goal. They decided that the city’s inaugural winter celebration’s kickoff would take place on February 1, 1886. On Christmas day, local newspapers advertised a “grand Carnival and Festival during the beautiful month of February.” The papers boasted the event would take place in “the most rapidly growing and handsomest city on the continent.”
As the opening day drew near, preparations were made to accommodate a massive influx of spectators expected to come to the city. Officials worked with the railroads to offer affordable rates into the city during the festivities. They met with various lodging houses to ensure that there were low-cost options to stay in the heart of downtown. The savings would give carnival-goers the increased financial ability to take in all the festivities. Other events took shape, with an ice carving contest and masquerade ball scheduled for opening night at the Ryan Hotel ice rink.
Carnival preparations continued through January until late in the night on the eve of the event. Workers completed the Ice Palace and built and placed small ice statues and arches throughout the city. Flags decorated local businesses. Despite the challenges of carrying out such a grand vision, the winter’s celebration was ready to begin by the early morning of February 1. St. Paul could now show that winter months weren’t a “perpetual night” but was instead “touched … by a sun whose brightness [was] unrivaled the world over.”
As expected, people came from all directions (and climates) to take in the Ice Palace’s splendor. Still, the unique castle of ice was not the event’s lone success. Enormous crowds could be found at all hours of the day, enjoying the city’s sights and sounds. The first day saw excited onlookers cheer on a parade of five-thousand march down St. Paul’s streets. That night showed winter’s beauty, with thousands of lights shining through a city full of intricate ice structures. The city was awake with excitement the entire opening day and remained so for the grand event’s remainder.
The 1886 St. Paul Winter Carnival was deemed an immediate success and the inaugural event of a celebration that continues to this day.
Works cited available here.