For decades Omaha historian Jeff Barnes and I have been intrigued and continually researched one of, if not the, most remarkable events and attendant feats of construction in Nebraska’s history that were associated with the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, “when the world came unto Omaha.”
Virtually nothing, however, remains of the hundreds of elaborate, albeit temporary, buildings. What then remains outside of photos and ephemera?
The literal world’s fair opened on its 184-acre grounds, north of downtown Omaha, at noon, Oct. 31, 1898, with 27,998 in attendance the first day. In addition to various government buildings, art galleries, corporate exhibits, auditoriums, cafes, a midway and Native encampment, nine other states had buildings on the 38-acre Bluff Tract on the east side of the grounds, while 22 additional states, plus Indian Territory and Alaska, had exhibits and displays in other buildings.
Pottawattamie County, Iowa, also built an 83-foot-tall, four-floor wigwam (teepee) in addition to Iowa’s building. The largest state building was, understandably, Nebraska. It was 90-foot-by-145-foot and 85-foot-tall, with a 60-foot dome structure that cost what was then a staggering $22,000.
Minnesota’s state building is most often speculated as being, though greatly altered, the only extant building from the exposition. Unlike the other state buildings, the Minnesota legislature did not initially provide any funding for its design or construction. Seeing the oversight, Minnesota Gov. DM Clough appointed a commission that raised and pledged $30,000 for the project with assurance that it would be reimbursed by subsequent legislative action.
The final day of the exposition was dubbed Omaha Day, with a closing ceremony at 3 pm in the auditorium featuring a number of speakers, including the fair’s president, Gurdon Wattles, Mayor Frank Moores and others. Omaha’s schools were closed for the day and businesses were encouraged to let staff attend, bringing the day’s attendance to 61,236. Oct. 12, the day President William McKinley was in attendance, brought 98,845 out for the record attendance day, with the total for the entire fair recorded at 2,613,508 as the lights were turned off at midnight.
A number of local businessmen thought the success of the fair could be extended and purchased the buildings, reopening as the “Greater American Exposition,” highlighting “America the New Colonial Empire,” then including the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Although some of the midway and displays had been removed, lighting was increased, some landscaping improved, though the fair was not the expected success. The new exposition closed in November with the remaining buildings sold to the Chicago House Wrecking Co. for $50,000 and unsalvageable remnants simply bulldozed into a lagoon that was then filled over with dirt.
One newspaper recorded that the “Minnesota building was demolished,” but widespread stories circulated that it had been purchased for as much as $6,000 by Ben Marks, who had arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the 1860s and later joined by John Mabray to partner in building a horse racing track at Lake Manawa. The story gained circulation, saying Marks had “purchased the Minnesota building … took it apart, numbered the logs, tied them together, floated them down the river and reconstructed them as a house” at a cost of $20,000 ($100,000 by another paper) to serve as their gambling and prostitution “resort.” The supposed reconstruction interestingly appears to straddle the Mills and Pottawattamie county lines at today’s 17012 Allis Rd. A more recent report says, “The truth is, it didn’t happen. Marks was outbid by a man from Illinois.”
Some of the midway rides found their way to other parks.
The New York building may have been rebuilt as a house and the Nebraska building supposedly served for a time as state storage. The wigwam/teepee was purchased by St. John’s English Lutheran Church of Council Bluffs, which utilized it as a café “for about four months” before being “sold to Anderson Bros. contractors, for lumber, and they used a large portion of it in the Illinois Central depot.”
Laurtizen Gardens now showcases “an original bierstube from the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition” built by Storz Brewery.
Hundreds of photos of the Exposition taken by official photographer Frank Rinehart survive in several books, with many originals owned by the Omaha Public Library. But where are the thousands of art works and pieces of statuary? Surely not buried in the former lagoon that, so far, has yielded only many pieces of decorative staff building parts.
Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at email@example.com.