continued The first record of a wintertime gathering in Saranac Lake was a blurb in the Feb. 25, 1897 edition of the Essex County Republican that mentioned a, “fancy dress gathering,” held by a group called the Pontiac Club. About 100 people attended, dressed in masquerade-type attire, to watch a hockey match. Little else is known and it wasn’t until the following year that the events morphed into a singular carnival that included a boys-only “prize fancy skating contest,” an exhibition by visiting professional figure skaters from Utica, a “hocking match,” and the “grand illuminating and storming of the ice fortress.”
Festivalgoers would pretend to storm the fortress like a castle, said Andy Flynn, former Denton Publications Asssistant Managing Editor who currently works for the Lake Placid News, who’s become something of an expert on the history of the carnival.
“Different groups would storm in from different angles,” said Flynn, author of “Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Memories,” describing an activity that was in fashion at the time.
Flynn said the carnival’s modern-day fireworks that draw upwards of 10,000 spectators still contain echoes of wartime displays. The crowd watches the opening fireworks from behind, he said. And during the closing, the public is assembled in the middle of the action.
“It’s an immersive experience and two of the carnival’s biggest highlights,” he said.
Despite it’s storied history, the carnival hasn’t beckoned residents out into the frost every year. There were gaps from the 1920s until the mid-1950s when the town fell silent due to both World War II and what historical documents provided by Historic Saranac Lake, a local non-profit, refer to as “a lack of proper leadership.”
However, it was resurrected in the winter of 1947-48 and has been held annually ever since.
The Ice Palace, which wasn’t constructed for a 35 year period between 1920 and 1954, has also been a mainstay since the time when the carnival’s parade consisted of sleek convertibles with tail light fins humming down a snowpacked Ampersand Avenue.