Annual Saranac Lake structure takes shape
Story and photos by Tom French
The first Ice Palace in Saranac Lake was built in 1898, though they date back to 18th-Century St. Petersburg, Russia. In North America, Montreal has top billing (1883) with St. Paul, Minnesota, placing second (1886). Because Saranac Lake has consistently built a palace since the get-go, it can claim third place.
Recently, Lake George attempted to get in on the act with their Ice Castles – created by spraying water in subzero temperatures with hand-placed icicles. After two years, the attraction has been replaced with “Winter Realms,” a “more weather-resistant, winter experience.” The effects of warmer winters can be a constant challenge. In 2023, the palace was downsized due to thin ice in Pontiac Bay and a late construction start. Builders like the ice to be at least 12 inches, though they’ve used thinner. Warm weather last February forced officials to demolish the palace after only two weeks.
Step 1: Harvest the Ice
Saranac Lake’s ice palace grew from the desire for some mid-winter recreation, but harvesting ice was a significant industry for the Adirondacks from the 1800s into the 1930s employing thousands of men who cut tens of thousands of tons annually. Adirondack ice was shipped not only from Saranac Lake, but Lake George, Lake Champlain and many other locales. Adirondack water, in the form of ice, was loaded into insulated boxcars in the days before mechanical refrigeration and shipped to the tropics around the world. It’s said the Waldorf-Astoria used only Raquette Lake Ice, where it is still harvested every year in order to provide summer “air conditioning” for the Raquette Lake Supply Company.
I’m familiar with the process as a volunteer with the Saranac Lake IPW (International Palace Workers) Local 101 and also from recordings of my grandfather explaining the process from when he was young. He harvested ice from the St. Lawrence River – a source of income through the winter along with trapping, moving houses, and selling sturgeon to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. He dreaded it immensely “because it was a horrible, hard job. Your hands would be numb and your stomach would ache from the cold.”
If lucky, the lake is windswept and clear of snow, otherwise, it will need to be plowed or shoveled. The IPW regularly clears snow in the weeks prior to harvesting “to allow maximum freeze,” especially during cold snaps and at night. Snow acts as an insulating blanket and impedes ice formation.
On the morning the harvest begins, an IPW crew uses chainsaws near shore to create a channel to the excavator while another group uses a chalk reel to mark and triangulate two sides of the field.
Once the lines are set, Garrett Foster fires up the homemade, 1939, gas-powered ice saw with its 25-inch blade. The depth of the blade is set so it doesn’t cut all the way through, but only scores the ice. Like the game, workers Don’t Break the Ice until they’re ready. Foster keeps the runners in the previous cut or track as a guide. The IPW usually makes 2×4 foot blocks that weight 600 pounds.
In the old days, horse-drawn ice plows with six to eight teeth in a line were used to score the fields. Multiple passes were required.
Once enough blocks have been outlined, the cutting begins, and the operation reverts to its 19th-century, “Frozen” roots with long, six-foot ice saws. The trick is to pump in a circle and let gravity be your friend.
Sawyers slice the short ends of the blocks, three blocks apart, then several spudders line up and coordinate strikes into the perpendicular groove until the three blocks snap off. A couple spudders follow-up by hitting between the three blocks before a string of people use long pike poles to relay the blocks toward the canal. The excavator grapples them out of Lake Flower to waiting bucket loaders and tractors that carry the blocks to where they’re needed.
Step 2: Build the Palace
While the harvesting crew is extracting the ice, Dean Baker, supervisor of the operation for the last 17 years, “eyeballs” the placement of the foundational blocks based on his scale drawings. Dean has been a volunteer with the IPW for 42 years. Legend has it that the initial plan is sketched out on a cocktail napkin in The Belvedere. He then transfers the ideas to graph paper.
The first course of blocks is laid out around the site. Shavers use a spade-like tool to shape the blocks and clean them of snow, bumps, and irregularities. Historically, additional tiers would have been accomplished with slides, ramps, or blocks and pulleys. Today, a number of companies and individuals donate heavy equipment including a crane to lift the blocks, though manpower is needed to position them accurately.
Step 3: Slushers and Lights
Any good brick building requires mortar, and what better material for an ice palace than slush. Volunteers mix snow and water in 5-gallon buckets to the consistency of mashed potatoes near the edge of the lake before dragging the buckets to the slushers with plastic sleds. Insulated rubber gloves work best for scooping and pushing the slush between the blocks.
In good ice years, when Pontiac Bay freezes early and thick, the IPW uses double-wall construction along parts of the perimeter. The secret passage between the walls allows for lights and supports second-story ramparts and parapets accessible to the public. Staircases of ice are built inside towers and custom ice blocks are harvested for the wall walk over gateway tunnels.
As the palace grows, especially upward, the “iron workers” of the IPW take center stage on the “high ice.” With traction devices on their feet and care in their steps, they maneuver the blocks into position and mortar the seams. The highest walls of the palace can reach over 40 feet into the sky.
Lights are strung between double walls and hidden away in the ice.
Step 4: Ice Sculptures
As visitors to the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival know, the grounds of the palace are decorated with various ice sculptures based on the year’s theme (this year’s is the Halloween-based “Creepy Carnival”). John “Doc” Ward has been doing it the longest, almost 10 years since he retired as an art teacher from Saranac Lake High School.
“The kids gave me that nickname (Doc) when I started (teaching) in 1985, and it stuck with me.”
He learned chainsaw skills by working with local lumberjacks and “making it up.” His son Liam also helps, and John has recruited former students. “They’re all professional artists now. Sara Mazdzer lives in Manhattan and comes back for it.” John expects about six carvers this year.
Ward and his crew are also responsible for the dais with thrones and guardian statues.
Step 5: Finish Work
A slide and/or maze are often incorporated into the palace. Words are slushed onto the walls in various places, safety features such as sand in high-traffic areas or hay-bale bumpers at the bottom of slides are installed, all in preparation for the crowds. Once the palace opens, volunteers are stationed at strategic locations to assist visitors.
Back in the day, the palace may have been carefully deconstructed so the ice could be sent to market to become part of someone’s Caribbean cocktail, though Amy Catania, Executive Director of Historic Saranac Lake at the Saranac Laboratory Museum, has never seen source material to confirm that.
Today, once the palace is deemed unsafe, it is simply knocked down and left to melt into the shoreline of Lake Flower and posterity.
The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival officially runs Feb. 2 -11. A complete schedule of events can be found at https://saranaclakewintercarnival.com/