Mid-Winter Mardi Gras:
Rossland's Original Winter Carnival
by Ronald A. Shearer
Rossland was a wide open mining town in 1897, newly incorporated as a city, but only a few years away from being but a cluster of shacks on a bench on an isolated mountain side. As new gold-copper deposits were discovered and proven, men poured in, seeking employment in the mines. Business was expanding, the city was growing and people were exuberant and confident of the future. There were growing pains, of course, but there was also rapid development. Streets were laid out, houses, hotels, commercial buildings and schools were being built (and expanded), and transport facilities from the outside world were being completed and rapidly improved. A small American-owned company, the Rossland Water and Power Company, was supplying fresh water and electricity to parts of the city, but sewerage remained a serious problem. In the near future, the West Kootenay Power and Light Company would be formed and would begin providing electricity to the mines and the city from its hydro-electric works on the Kootenay River and the city would take over and develop the water system and build a comprehensive sewerage system. However, in 1897 Rossland was still a rather primitive frontier town facing another cold, dark, snow covered and, for many, dreary winter. But the city had an ice rink and an outstanding ski champion. Why not have a party to celebrate ice and snow sports and relieve some of the winter gloom -- and have it in February, the gloomiest month of them all.
I don't know the genesis of the idea of a winter carnival. It is possible that the inspiration came from the winter carnivals in Montreal and Quebec City, which were very elaborate, week-long affairs that were widely publicized and attracted throngs of visitors from near and far.[i] These carnivals had many of the same sports as did the Rossland carnivals -- but perhaps that was inevitable given that they were all winter carnivals. A unique feature of the Montreal and Quebec carnivals and part of the reason for their fame was their elaborate ice palaces, designed by architects and constructed for the occasion out of blocks of ice hewn from the frozen St. Lawrence River. One of the highlights of the carnival was the night-time storming of the ice palace. A horde of torch bearing, costumed snowshoers attacked, while another group defended. Shooting off rockets and other fireworks to simulate the weapons of war, they put on a wild, colourful and brilliant pyrotechnic display to the delight of the audience.[ii] For a few years, the Rossland carnival featured a small-scale version of the storming of the ice palace (see below, p. 21). However, although this event was undoubtedly inspired by the Quebec events, the first "storm the fort" display did not occur until the carnival was already well established. It was not part of the original plans. Nonetheless, many people in Rossland came from Quebec and nearby locations and would have known of the carnivals and may well have visited them. Perhaps particularly influential in this regard was Charles O Lalonde, a Quebecois shoe merchant, who was born in Quebec but spent several years in business in Ontario before coming to Rossland.[iii] Having been involved in municipal government in Port Arthur, Ontario, where he had a retail business, he became very active in Rossland's municipal affairs. In 1897 he was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor at the first civic election (he won the mayoralty in 1901), but was an alderman (1898-99) and a member of the committee for the first carnival. He was also an avid snowshoer, one of those responsible for organizing the snowshoe club and the "storm the fort" spectacle.
There were other possible sources of inspiration for the carnival. Olaus Jeldness' exploits racing down Red Mountain on skis may have attracted attention to the possibilities, or perhaps it was Jeldness himself, ever the promoter of outdoor winter sports, who came up with the idea. Perhaps it was the existence of an ice rink that turned thoughts to regional hockey, skating and curling competitions. Indeed, at the time Rossland had two ice rinks, the Rossland Skating Rink at the corner of Washington Street and First Avenue, at the edge of what had been Sourdough Alley, the old centre of the mining camp,[iv] and the Palace Skating Rink (commonly called the Ice Palace) up the hill at the corner of Washington Street and Second Avenue. Although one was planned, apparently the former had no roof, while the Ice Palace was fully enclosed. It was at the Ice Palace that the indoor festivities of the first Winter Carnival were held. However, the building was poorly constructed for a mountain town that received heavy snow falls. Late on the night of March 29, 1898, following a fall of heavy wet snow, the roof collapsed, minutes after officials of the company that owned it had left the building after cleaning the ice, an hour after the completion of a public skating session, and a month and a half after the first winter carnival.[v]
A calamity had occurred, but an even greater calamity had been avoided. What to do? Without a covered ice rink winter in Rossland would have been much less bearable and the carnival would have been doomed. A company was formed to build a new and larger rink. The company conducted an intense and remarkably successful campaign to raise funds to build the arena, selling shares locally. Construction began in early November, 1898[vi] and the rink opened on December 19,[vii] in time for the 1899 winter carnival -- a remarkably short construction period for a large, public building that withstood heavy snow falls and was to be used for almost 40 years. At the time, it was the largest such building west of Winnipeg.[viii] It had a main ice sheet for skating and hockey and ice sheets on both sides dedicated to curling. Additional curling sheets were added in an extension of the main building in 1904.[ix] I don't know how large an investment he made in the company, but Olaus Jeldness was one of the founding directors.[x] Indeed, he was the first managing director, responsible for the operation of the arena, a position that he held over the winter of 1898-99.[xi] Similarly, I don't know if he retained his shareholding in the arena company when he left town in the summer of 1899, but he maintained his interest in ice sports. It is reported that he was one of the principal financial supporters of Spokane hockey teams that came to later winter carnival tournaments.[xii]
Whether it was the Quebec influence, Jeldness' skiing or the availability of a covered ice rink, or a combination of all three that inspired the first winter carnival, in early January, 1898, plans for a winter carnival in February were announced, and preparations began.[xiii] It was thought that this was the first time that such an event was attempted in British Columbia.[xiv] A carnival intended to attract visitors from nearby cities was an ambitious project for the small, busy, relatively isolated, mining community, with so many other personal, industrial, commercial and governmental projects underway.
Rossland's winter carnival was much more than a series of competitions on snow and ice. It was a grand civic celebration of winter, with aspirations in some minds to be the Mardi Gras of the North. Beginning in 1899 the mayor declared the Friday of the carnival a civic holiday, and later extended the holiday to Thursday and Friday. [xv] For an event strongly supported by local storekeepers because of the business that it would bring to the city, it is not clear what a "civic holiday" meant. It undoubtedly had symbolic significance, but local hotels and restaurants worked overtime and shops could not be expected to close with the city full of potential customers. A rumor that the carnival committee had attempted to have the mines, the economic life-blood of the community, closed for the festival was hotly denied.[xvi] The mines were not closed for the carnival until a one day closure near the end of the Carnival’s existence.[xvii] The School Board noted that they did not have the authority to close the schools, but the Rossland Miner suggested that parents keep their children home from school on both Thursday and Friday so that they might participate in the events. [xviii] If all the children stayed away, there would be no option but to close the schools, releasing the teachers and staff to participate in the carnival as well. In later years, students were assembled for the morning roll call and then dismissed to partake of the carnival events.[xix] In 1906 the Provincial Superintendent of Education made the Friday of the carnival a school holiday for Rossland, at least partially validating the school closures.[xx] Perhaps some city employees had a day off to participate in the festivities, but regular civic responsibilities (not to mention other ones connected to the carnival) continued and many city employees would have had to work. Outside visitors were invited -- indeed, actively pursued. A special excursion train from Spokane was arranged as were special train fares from points in the Kootenay and Boundary districts (the one-way fare plus one third, for trains from Fernie and stations west). Everybody was to have fun at a time of year and in circumstances when just surviving in poorly heated houses could be an ordeal.