Ice Castle

Ice Castle Update – 1/8/18

  • The ice castle is completed and lit up. It is 30 ft. tall and 25 x 30 ft. in size. 2100 blocks were used to build this year’s castle.
  • Thank you to the Eagle River Area Volunteer Fire Department and many community volunteers who made it all possible.
  • Updates to the status of the Ice Castle will be posted as they are available.

Each winter, volunteers headed by the area firefighters, put in more than 700 “man hours” to cut nearly 3000 12-inch-thick ice blocks from a local lake, haul them to downtown Eagle River, Wisconsin, and build a huge ice castle. Eagle River’s Ice Castle has become a popular attraction for motorists, snowmobilers, locals and visitors, as dozens of people stop each day to photograph the 20-foot high structure along Highway 45 North.

The ice palace is a cool facade that is at once transparent and opaque, depending on the light, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, different each year.

The ice castle in Eagle River is constructed annually, weather permitting, on the weekend closest to New Years, by the Eagle River Area’s Volunteer Fire Department.

History of the Ice Castle

The first ice castle began as an addition to the annual “King Winter” festival in 1933. The project was led by Ed Bandow and William Radue, owner of Pickerel Lake Resort cut the ice from Silver Lake. The first castle was built on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad property across from current day Moccasin Shop.

The next ice castle construction lead by Louis Behlow, didn’t occur until the winter of 1935-36, comprising of only 250 blocks of Ice. After this it became part of a annual tradition, and was planned out prior to construction.

F. W. Janusch a Chicago architect and summer resident designed the ice castle until 1942. Charles Hanke, who owned the Eagle River ice route way back when, provided the ice for the castles during these early years.

In the following years from 1942 to 1948 during World War II the castles where not constructed. Then in 1948 Charles Hanke built a castle on his front lawn. Charles Hank then continued to design the castles until about 1980 when his grandson Jack Thomas took over.

Although the design of the castle has stayed in Charles Hanke’s family since 1948, the organizers of the castles construction has changed hands multiple times. During the 50’s and 60’s the Eagle River Lions Club organized the project until they became overwhelmed with the World Championship Snowmobile Derby. The Eagle River Chamber of Commerce attempted to pick up the project during the 70’s, but eventually dropped the project when it became too overwhelming.

The Eagle River Area’s Volunteer Fire Department then took over in the mid 80’s with jack Thomas the assistant chief at the time. The department continues to build the castle every year with Jack Thomas’s design constructed from Legos.

Current Day Ice Castle

“It’s a wonderful project,” comments past Fire Chief Weber. “We take pride in our community – and we do the ice castle for the same reasons we’re volunteer firemen – to serve the community and the people of the area,” he says.

With a different design, each year, the ice castle gets “a little bigger and taller each time,” Weber notes. Weber says Thomas studies pictures of previous ice palaces and plans the general designs.

“One design we won’t repeat is the ice castle we build that had round towers,” says Weber with a smile. “It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to round off each ice block and the volunteers told me in no uncertain terms that would be the last ice castle we’d build with anything round,” he remembers.
The volunteers still use some of the original equipment that Hanke used, including an ice saw and a conveyor system used to get the ice blocks from Silver Lake to the pickup truck.

According to Thomas, the volunteers used to jack up a model A Ford and use the rear wheel to turn the conveyor. Today, the same conveyor is turned by the hydraulics from a wooden splitter.

First, the ice is scored and cost on Eagle River’s Silver Lake. Then, over 2500 blocks of ice 10 x 10 x 20 inches are removed from the lake. The ice blocks are trucked to the site, and the construction work begins. And it is WORK! All done by hand! And although the number of blocks varies with the structure, up to 3,000 of the 60-70 pound blocks are used each year.

A photo of the 1940 Ice Castle shows multi-level parapets, with American flags flying from one of the towers; a 1942 photo shows an obelisk-shaped ice castle sporting a ”V” and a red cross. Another photo, date unknown, shows a rounded structure, about 20-feet high, with windows and a door dummied in.
A more recent photo shows a group of snowmobilers posed in front of the wide spread walls of the ice palace that is garnished by wreaths and a couple of fir trees.
In recent years, colored floodlights have been added to illuminate the palace at night – 93 floodlights were used in 1997 – and photos silhouetting people in front of the ice castle are spectacular.

“I spent all of my growing up years on a resort ten miles or so out of town (Eagle River),” a former Eagle River resident wrote the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center. “After I grew up and moved away, I enjoyed it so much seeing it on the rare visits I could make. Last year’s ice castle… was stunning… it’s such a special part of an Eagle River winter!”

The ice castle is “one of the most photographed attractions in our area,” says an Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center spokesperson. “I’ll bet there have been a million pictures taken of people in front of and around the ice castle,” echoes Weber. “I wish I had stock in Kodak,” he adds, smiling.
There have been weddings, or post wedding pictures, taken at the ice castle, too. Recently, a travel journalist, known for his first-hand reports, asked to stay overnight at the ice castle to get the “flavor” for his story.

“It sure brings a lot of wonderful notoriety to the area, adds Weber. “People just love it, and so do we.”
In addition to all of the volunteer time, costs involved with erecting the ice castle include the need to upgrade and maintain the equipment, replace bulbs, pay for the gasoline, etc.” notes Weber.

Many local businesses donate money, as well as in-kind support, providing breakfasts, lunches, cocoa, soups, sandwiches, and candy for the volunteers. There is also a donation box and descriptive information at the back of the structure for locals and visitors who want to show their appreciation in support.
Depending on weather, the Ice Castle normally stands until late February, when the remains are taken down.

Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center Executive Director, Kim Emerson, mused about the Ice Castle’s impact on Eagle River.

“We want folks to visit our wonderful community, but it is a lot more than that: How can you measure the joy of wide-eyed kids and adults watching the ice being cut and hauled using the old equipment, and volunteers building this ice castle, by hand and then stepping back to see this huge, utterly beautiful, and artistic ice structure?

“The “feel” of the whole thing is special. It is the community working as one – and untold thousands of visitors can enjoy it,” notes Emerson.

“That credit card company is right when it states: “there are some things that money can’t buy”, says Emerson. “The Eagle River Ice Castle is one of them,” she concludes.