Since the time of earliest settlement, the greatest unsolved challenge facing Montrealers has been what to do about winter. Winter has determined our culture and history probably more than any other natural or human factor. It's tough. It's not for sissies. Thus its necessary survival requirements have created many unique material and social inventions. One of the most impressive was the Victorian period's Winter Carnival celebrations, featuring enormous Ice Palaces.
The heyday of the Montreal Ice Palace was between 1883 and 1889. These complex structures were erected in the then Dominion Square, now Place du Canada, in the then up and coming business district in downtown Montreal.
The first Ice Palace, that of 1883, was designed by architect A. C. Hutchinson, an expert in stone construction who had experience working on the new Christ Church Cathedral (corner of University and Ste. Catherine ) at only 19 years of age. Later he would go on to work on the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. However, Hutchinson took his ephemeral ice buildings as seriously as his still extant important structures in stone.
The ice was cut in 500-pound blocks, mostly from the St. Lawrence River and possibly from the Lachine Canal – an easier, and smoother source. From the prints and photos, we can see that these Ice Palaces were huge – most over 100 feet high – and had all the complex turrets and battlements of a real palace. They were, of course, in the popular Neo-Gothic style so loved by the Victorians. This pseudo-medieval architecture was reflective of the imperial mentality of the age and flourished most strongly in British, and British-influenced, countries. Montreal also had the added cultural inheritance of the French château – although somewhat a severe Norman version, more suited to our climate (winter again!) like the Château Ramesay.
The Ice Palaces were only one part of the Montreal Winter Carnivals. There were sleigh rides, snowshoe races (the many Montreal snowshoe clubs sponsored the Carnivals) and toboggan slides. There was an especially frightening toboggan slide that went down Place Jacques Cartier out on to the river, and several on Mount Royal. Tourists came in great numbers, mainly from the United States, to participate. The Winter Carnivals were economic boons as well as entertainment for the locals.
The highlight of the Carnival was the storming of the Ice Palace by the snowshoe clubs on the last evening of events. The Palace was “attacked” with fireworks by the snowshoers. According to contemporary reports, this was a very impressive spectacle.
Although there were attempts to continue building Ice Palaces on and off after the 1880s, some at Fletcher's Field (Parc Jeanne Mance), nothing on the same scale seemed to endure. We still have winter festivals and Quebec City has its Ice Hotel, but the glittering palaces of the Victorians have melted away like all the snows of yesteryear.