Powering up a Winter Festival

Last November, about the time most of us living above the Mason-Dixon line began a months-long huddle around the fireplace with the arrival of 30-degree temperatures, things were heating up in Saint Paul, Minn. The heat was not entirely provided by fossil fuel, either; the city is the home of a 120-year-old winter carnival that celebrates the cold season.

The carnival is the physical manifestation of the indignation the locals felt when, in 1886, a reporter for the New York Times described their fair city as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter.” At the time, Saint Paul was the fastest-growing city in the United States, its population having increased from 39,000 to 120,000 between 1880 and 1886. It also was the third-largest rail center in the United States.

In this wintertime event, the Minnesotans included skiing, snowshoeing and a blanket-tossing contest.

The main attraction of the first carnival was the first in a series of ice castles that eventually put the event under an international spotlight. The castle was built as a symbolic home for King Boreas, the King of all Winds, and was constructed of thousands of oversized ice cubes. It was 180 feet long, 154 feet wide and towered 106 feet above street level. Its interior rooms were furnished with massive ice sculptures. Boreas’ reign ended on the last day of the two weeks of festivities when Vulcanus Rex, the god of fire, took possession of the castle and welcomed spring with a huge fireworks display.

Two years later, the second castle was 130 feet tall, the tallest building in the city and the first in Saint Paul to have electrical lights. It became the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “Ice Palace,” which was published in 1918.

Nearly a century later, the 1986 castle was the tallest ice structure in the world, and featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. For the 1992 Super Bowl, the locals constructed an even larger castle, a photo of which appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Weighing in at 16.8 million pounds, it was 248 feet wide, just large enough for the 2.5 million visitors who paid a visit.

Fast forward to 2004 and you will find that the citizenry continues the tradition, these days with major contributions from Collins Electrical Construction, IBEW local 110 and the local NECA chapter.

At the hub of thousands of electrical connections for the ice castle project is Collins, a fixture in Saint Paul since 1948 that has grown to become one of the largest contractors in the state. Specializing in industrial, commercial and institutional contracts, the firm at one point held licenses in 38 states while completing a nationwide project placing strobes on the tops of fossil fuel plants.

Collins President Leonard Deeg said, “We participate for the good will for the city. And, it is a way to get the community out to celebrate winter.”

Despite the rigors of running the company, Deeg still finds time to serve on the board of directors for the foundation that organizes the festival.

The initial budget estimate for the 2004 project was $4.5 million, of which 80 percent was to be provided by donated equipment and labor. That it was low was no surprise.

The initial estimate for the electrical infrastructure of $358,000 also turned out to be surprisingly optimistic. Deeg said, “Collins’ contribution is a six-figure amount for hard equipment, and 4,800 volunteer hours of the crew.” That was a fraction of the cost, which also included a contribution from the local NECA chapter and volunteer hours donated by members of IBEW 110. Those hardy souls arrived ready for duty after full days on other jobs to work far into the chilly nights, and on weekends.

Engineer Kevin Kuehn of Collins began working with the architects designing the castle nine months before construction workers began converting a 4.8-acre, open-air parking facility to a site suitable for a king. Kuehn also was responsible for shepherding the project through the offices of the city electrical inspectors.

“Safety was a huge concern since we were dealing with electricity and water,” Kuehn said of a dangerous combination, especially when temperatures dropping below 32 F could convert the castle to a large pond.

As you might expect, there was more to the undertaking than powering a few light bulbs. On-site electricity was required to power sound and video programs, the lighting and cooling system for an NHL hockey rink, trailers, tents and a sound and light show that ran for 8 minutes every half-hour. Festival spokesperson Angela Yender said, “The 2004 Palace had seven times more power than the 1992 Ice Palace. We estimate there were over 2 million Watts of energy available.” The estimated power bill was $32,000.

When site preparation began in September 2003, a trencher and backhoe were used for three weeks to create a subsurface space for 15,000 feet of pipe and conduit. Naturally, there were minor distractions: discovery of the foundations for several buildings that once occupied the site; tunnels that may have been used by gangsters in the past that now are used by utility companies; and the owner of the lot allowing customers to park vehicles on site while electricians were pulling cable. Collins’ electricians dealt with it all.

The project advanced under the supervision of Tom Kolias, a Collins project manager who worked full time at the site. As with any commercial job, even volunteers working on the project were required to wear hard hats and vests.

Meanwhile, back at the shop, Collins’ team was constructing custom housing for light fixtures, speakers and trailers that housed electrical panels. A major challenge was installation of wiring, fixtures and speakers out of sight and out of the weather in the castle’s turrets and towers. Of a total of 600 lights, 400 were enclosed in boxes; similarly, electric panels were installed in specially constructed waterproof plywood boxes.

Three separate services were installed in specially built trailers designed to be located out of sight outside the castle. Each provided 2,500A of three-phase power, the equivalent of a big box store. The trailers, which are eight feet wide and 10 feet long were built in three days by Collins workers. Now owned by Collins and the IBEW, they will be used for future civic events.

That wasn’t all: crews working into the night also installed 272 separate LED panels in ice walls, designed to produce mind-boggling visual presentations, the first time those types of panels were installed in a chilly enclosure.

“The entertainment stage ceiling was supported by the largest truss structure in the United States,” Yender said. Lighting the stage for performers required 150 lights, and a control system managing strobes and floodlights that changed colors in fractions of a second, illuminating the area like Disneyland. By the time the project was completed electrical crews had installed approximately 600 intelligent lighting instruments inside the castle, and an additional 850 lighting instruments throughout the site. Each fixture, which weighed between seven and 85 pounds, required 1.25 hours to install. Plus, the canopy over the stage was the largest temporary canopy in the United States.

The payoff: a lighting system that produced over 1 million colors.

IBEW representative Dick Vitelli speaks with pride of the accomplishment.

“An example of volunteerism was the 45 electricians who just showed up one Saturday with their belts and asked what needed to be done,” he recalled.

Cold weather arrived in early January, just in the nick of time. During the final days of preparation, when not working on the electrical system, Vitelli and others were five miles from the site at Lake Phelan, assisting with the cutting and transport of the 27,000 600-pound ice blocks that became part of the castle walls.

Deeg said the project was completed “with no snafus. It ran very smoothly because we ran it like a major construction project.”

“This is a gift to the community that we can be proud of because it will go down in history. A lot of children were oohing and aahing as they toured the palace. It gave everyone goosebumps,” Vitelli added.

Similarly, Rich Wynne, NECA Chapter Manager, said “It’s a pleasure to participate in this project with Local 110. The Ice Palace will serve as a fitting symbol of the spirit of the City of St. Paul.”

Is Saint Paul another Siberia? Perhaps, if your measuring stick is a thermometer. However, 116 years after Carnival One, the hearts and spirits of the citizenry are still as warm as toast. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net