Ice Skating on the Laramie River

There is an unmistakable sound a steel blade makes on solid ice—and an unmistakable smell of potatoes baking in their jackets in the coals of a big bonfire.  Add the laughter of young people as they glide by teasing each other and you have the makings of an ice skating party—1870’s style, along the Laramie River. 

 There was plenty of natural ice along the River in wintertime, though the surface might be bumpy.

 A better place for skating was the impoundment the Union Pacific Railroad had created for trapping logs floated downriver in the spring.  This pond did double duty for the railroad—it was also a pond for cutting ice that would be needed in the spring and summer before the advent of mechanical refrigeration in produce railroad cars.

 Morgan Knadler also created a nearby pond for cutting ice, which he stored and delivered to customer’s ice boxes all over Laramie.  Both Knadler’s and the UPRR’s ponds were utilized by skaters, depending on which had the thickest ice; crews started cutting ice into blocks when it was at least 14” thick.   

 Remnants of these ponds can still be seen on the north side of Interstate 80, headed west, just after the Third Street exit, beyond the south end of Spruce Street

When the “dam” as it was called, froze over, the call would go out to young people to come out to enjoy ice skating.  “These moonlight nights are beautiful for those who indulge in the exhilarating exercise” extolled the Laramie Daily Sun in 1875.  

 In the years before Laramie got electricity (that came in 1886), a clear moonlit night was needed to strap on the skates.

Skates of the period were clamp-ons that strapped to the shoe.  Several stores in Laramie advertised “Winchester” skates from Massachusetts.  By 1896, the “Brownie” skate from Webster, Iowa was also available locally.

 One responsibility of the Town Marshal was to chase youngsters off the ice if it was too thin to be safe.  There were instances of youngsters falling into the icy waters, but because of shallow depth of the ponds, they were rescued “without damage” as the paper reported.

 The newspapers carried regular announcements of when the ice was safe, and when it was not—such as the announcement on January 13, 1900 that a warm wind had caused the river to overflow, causing about 2-4 inches of water on top of the ice. 

 The UPRR ice ponds continued to be popular for skating into the 20th century. In December 1919, the Boomerang described people flocking to the ponds, which the paper called “the most accessible skating place in the city.”

 Skaters built bonfires along the embankment to keep warm, and roasted potatoes in the coals.  “The spuds cooked in the coals make an appetizing repast after an hour of hard work,” said the Boomerang in 1919.

  People of all ages were described as “cutting capers,” indicating that shoe skates with toe picks were probably now available locally for figure skating.  Shoe skates had been invented in the mid-1800’s but had been used at first mainly for sport rather than recreational skating.

 Floods devastated the icehouses, dams and ponds south of town in 1923.  The Union Pacific chose to rebuild at a site north of Laramie along the river, with new ponds.  Morgan Knadler had died in 1921, his son Fred took over the ice business at the south location, but mechanical ice making probably ended that business too. Thus ended the days of ice skating along the river. Soon various skating rinks popped up around town—but their history is another story.

By Judy Knight

Caption:  a well-used pair of clamp-on “Brownie” skates made in Webster, Iowa, probably were prized possessions of one lucky Laramie youngster.  Leather straps held the skate to the boot.  In functionality they resemble the bone-blade skates of 3,000 years ago found in a lake bottom in Finland.  More for gliding in a straight line rather than fancy skating of today, they still provided lots of fun if not spills, on the ice. Photo courtesy of Laramie Plains Museum