ICE PALACE
Jim Mone  /  AP
The St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Palace is illuminated as it opened to the public on Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn. 
NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles ST. PAUL, Minn.
NBC News
updated 1/23/2004 4:01:44 PM ET 2004-01-23T21:01:44

As legend has it, a New York reporter back in the 19th century suggested that St. Paul, Minnesota, in winter, was "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation."

No doubt, knowing New Yorkers, the legend is true. But, since 1866, St. Paul's resilient residents have gone out of their way to prove that reporter was way wrong. 

Late Thursday, a bundled crowd of approximately 4,000 people braved sub-zero temperatures to kick-off the start of the city's annual winter carnival and celebrate the building of the first ice palace there in 12 winters.

The carnival is the nation’s oldest -- and coldest -- civic celebration.

This year the highlight of the carnival is a magnificent palace made of ice. Not some tiny handcrafted miniature figurine, but a monstrous, glistening structure that reaches six stories into the air.

The palace contains about 27,000 blocks of ice, each one weighing 500 pounds. The 240-foot-long palace includes 75-foot turrets.

Back in the 1800's, as St. Paul grew, the palace was often the tallest building in town until it eventually succumbed to the spring melt. People used to line up to get married inside.

All told, it's taken more than two weeks to put together, as volunteer work crews rumbled 24/7 with front and loaders and cranes carrying monstrous chunks of ice.  

Mustachioed ‘Vulcans’ welcome visitors
This is the first palace built since 1992, budget issues had cooled enthusiasm for the project. It is also the first time since 1941 that visitors have been able to visit the palace. Since admission had been free, insurance issues were a concern. But, this year, guests can walk through – for the cost of $5 ticket.

This year, the building of the palace and the carnival will in coincide with the National Hockey League's All-Star game, which will be played in the hometown Minnesota Wild's arena just next door.

In addition, carnival and palace visitors are met by a mysterious group of mustachioed men in red capes with a bizarre chant. They're called Vulcans, not the Star Trek variety, but of the variety that is apparently waiting for spring to arrive.

In all, at precisely the time when the weather's the coldest, some two million people will crunch their way through the snow to celebrate life in St. Paul.

So while residents elsewhere may be grumbling about arctic conditions, the plummeting temperature is actually good news for organizers and partiers alike-- since no one wants to visit a palace made of slush.

For more information: http://www.winter-carnival.com/ .

Kevin Tibbles is an NBC correspondent based in Chicago.

Video: On the scene

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