February 2015

Frozen in Time

Since 1898 Saranac Lake's elaborate ice palaces have been winter carnival showstoppers

Photograph by Mark Bowie

Photograph by Mark Bowie

In the darkest days of winter, when the ice on Pontiac Bay reaches 12 inches thick, a tribe of volunteers brings in a harvest of heavy slabs, then—working in shifts—stacks those building blocks into a marvel on the shores of Lake Flower. The hundred or so foot soldiers, calling themselves Ice Palace Workers Local 101, spend the weeks before every Saranac Lake Winter Carnival braving harsh weather, slippery surfaces and frostbitten fingers to take part in a century-old tradition.

A lot has changed since 1898, when the village’s first palace was erected. The earliest structures were designed by heavy-hitting architects—William Coulter, Max Westhoff, William Distin—and assembled by professional ice workers and builders. Around the middle of the 20th century, when castle funding streams began to freeze up, volunteers took the helm, helped along by labor pools from Camp Gabriels and other local prisons. These days inmates from Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, in Mineville, participate in what must be one of the most unique work details in the country.

Things are—at least comparatively—easier for today’s construction crews. Horsepower and snow ramps gave way to jury-rigged lifts and chutes, which gave way to excavators and cranes. But the happy result is still the same. At this wonder of the winter world, children scramble over ice-hewn creatures and pose on chilly thrones. The young at heart take a turn in the maze or search for a fish frozen into one of the blocks (an annual contribution from a local fisherman). And at night the icy palace is warmed by colorful lights and the joy of generations of revelers.

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