Friday, November 23, 2012

The year the World came to Omaha ...

The year was 1898, June through October to be exact, when Omaha was the focus of the nation and the world.

This was the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, a true World's Fair, a world-wide display of culture and industry, right here in Omaha, North Omaha, to be exact.

Over 2 1/2 million attendees participated, coming from all continents with the possible exception of Antarctica!

Among the notables present were President William McKinley, former and future Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, John Jacob Astor, Thomas Edison, and Apache Chief Geronimo.

If you don't mind, I'll be abbreviating the name of the event TME. Typing that over and over is a CHORE, kinda like typing Dido Albert Federowich over and over. :) :)  (LOL! Google that one if you're curious.) :)

This posting will barely scratch the surface as far as vintage images of the TME are concerned. It will not attempt to exhaustively enumerate the attractions. If you're interested, seek and you shall find! :) If you're looking for photos, do a Google image search for "Trans-Mississippi Exposition" and you'll get hundreds if not thousands, many of them small and in poor shape. Most any libe or bookstore will have books and special collections of photos, many of them being magnificently restored and retouched and very impressive. The Omaha Public Library has a comprehensive collection of TME photos and paraphernalia, including several official programs and the complete Rinehart Collection.

Rather than simply re-display what is displayed, we'll explore the area of Omaha where the TME occurred, perhaps doing some "What happened?" and "What's there now?" as we've done in previous items.

Yeah, we'll hit some of the high spots, but for the most part, details and images will be left as an exercise for the student. :) I'll include a few images here and there for illustrative purposes, all of which appear to have been post-copyright long before I was a twinkle in my parents' eyes. :)

In the year 1898, photography was a maturing technology, art, and craft. This was the era of dry plates, early roll film, large-format view cameras, and early pre-Brownie box cameras. Professional photographers of the era, and even skilled amateurs, could produce images that were true presentation quality by today's standards. They could, and did produce thousands of images of the TME.

This was the typical professional field/view camera of the era. (Photo by Tom Oates, 2010) Most likely Eastman Dry Plates were used to photograph the Fair. Modern methods of expressing film speed were not standardized until the 1930s and 1940s, but it's believed that the plates had a speed of roughly ASA/ISO 8-10. Sensitivity was most likely orthochromatic, sensitive to violet/blue/green and blind to red. These film speeds permitted "instantaneous" exposures in daylight, and allowed a certain degree of  "stop action" with the faster lenses of the era.

Most of the well-known photographs of the Fair were taken by Frank Rinehart, the Fair's official photographer, and Adolph Muhr, assistant to Rinehart.

Rinehart and Muhr maintained a studio and laboratory on the fairgrounds.

Most of the vintage photos in this posting appear to have originated from the Rinehart works.

An ad from a local camera shop encouraged fairgoers to visit them before visiting the Fair.

No true color photographs of the TME are thought to exist.

Color photography was not yet in its infancy. I daresay it hadn't even experienced quickening in time for the TME. Early natural-color processes such as Autochrome and Dufaycolor would not exist in a practical form until the late 19-oughts. Therefore, all photographic images of the TME are monochrome. Certain fans of such photographers as Adams, Abbott, and Fellig (Weegee) might argue that if a photo is properly done in B&W it will look no better in color. :)

The availability of the abundance of photos of the TME is helped by the fact that all images published during or shortly after the Fair appear to be in the public domain.

Thomas Edison shot some motion pictures on the fairgrounds, but not as a documentary. He used these as filler footage in his feature films.

Edison and Company had a very popular motion picture exhibit on the North Midway. Some books and articles incorrectly refer to this as the Vitascope. Although Edison and associates were briefly involved with Vitascope, the projection machine produced by Edison at the time of the Fair was correctly known as the Projectoscope.

Indian Congress.

The TME was to celebrate all things West, and that did include those who were here long before we European-Americans "discovered" America. The Indian Congress was held on the grounds, as part of the TME, and was at the time the largest gathering of Native American tribes in history.

Many of the tribes built encampments of traditional dwellings and lived on the fairgrounds during the later months of the TME.

The Iowa State Building, on the Bluffs Tract, was styled as a native dwelling. Quite modernist in appearance for the time, if I may say so.

As an aside and a digression, even when I was young(er) I never cared for the term "Indian" when it was used to refer to the indigenous people of the Americas. I don't use the term and have not used it for some time.

I'm not trying to be politically correct here, I'm trying to be factually and semantically correct. Our Native Americans do not come from India nor the East Indies. Most don't come from the West Indies either.

However (comma) the term "Indian" was what was used in 1898, so, like it or not, so I'll "pass it through" when appropriate in this posting. :)


Chief Goyathlay (Geronimo), as photographed by Frank Rinehart. Rinehart was an accomplished portrait photographer of the time and one of his projects was to do portraits of the various Native American leaders present.

So? Was it really a World's Fair?

As I started to write this item, I mentioned it to a few friends and acquaintances and was somewhat surprised to hear the common wisdom that "It really wasn't a true Worlds Fair" and the like. (Some did not even appear to know of the event at all!)

Well, was it? A Worlds Fair, that is?

Survey says ... {long pregnant pause ...}

The Bureau of International Expositions, the international organization responsible for the sanction of Worlds Fairs, did not exist in 1898. In fact, the term Worlds Fair did not appear in the title of any such event until decades later.

Nobody doubts that the 1964 New York Worlds Fair (Follow the Blue Arrow) was indeed a true Worlds Fair. The fact is, however, that the 1964 New York World's Fair was neither a registered nor recognized event under the auspices of the BIE.

LOL, we might therefore conclude that the TME was just as much a Worlds Fair as the 1964 New York event. :) Let's refrain from the debates and the TLAs and take a look at what was, and what remains.

What's amazing about the TME is that close to nothing, at all, remains! Of the over 100 major buildings and structures, not a single one still stands!

That's the way it was intended to be. All structures were temporary, constructed of wooden frames with facades crafted out of a stucco-like material known as "staff", as were many of the structures of similar expositions of the era.

There are several recipes out there for staff. Basically it's a high-tech (for 1898) goo made of a binder such as Plaster of Paris and/or Portland Cement, a filler such as hemp fibers, horse hair, sawdust, or a combination of such, and various other magic potions such as glycerine and/or shellac. The result is an attractive quick-setting material which can be molded into large assemblies to be affixed upon a wooden frame.

Currently, most of the former fairgrounds are residential, with much of it, particularly around the Kountze Park area, well-maintained mostly detatched single family homes, foursquare, craftsman, etc.

Unfortunately, some of the area, particularly the northern end, is quite seedy, with a collection of such things as salvage yards. This area is, dare I say it, most definitely blighted. :(

The main thoroughfare corridors have an abundance of boarded-up commercial buildings, the area having never recovered from the urban unrest of the 1960s.

The Fairgrounds:

Many books and articles give the boundaries of the TME grounds as 16th. Street (then known as Sherman Avenue) on the east, 24th. St. on the west, Pin(c)kney Street on the south, and Ames Avenue on the north. The fact is that the fairgrounds comprised a very irregular tract, with Ames and 24th., almost that is, making up the north and west limits, but actually extending in places as far east as the Omaha Belt Line right of way to the east (just east of today's 14th. Street), and almost to Binney Street on the south.

One of the best maps of the fairgrounds is that which appears in the Omaha Public Library's on-line exhibit ( which appears to have descended from an authentic TME program. I'm claiming "Fair Use" of their color-coded image (and the Google aerial view) for a bit of fairground boundary research here.

Fortunately the OPL's image is to scale, and if we overlay their fairground map upon the current aerial view, we can easily see the boundaries and extent of the TME grounds.

This drawing is an oblique aerial view of the Fairgrounds. While the structures in the foreground appear to be quite accurately shown, there are some features in the background which do not agree with maps, photos and descriptions. The view is the artist's depiction from the approximate location of Locust Street and the Iowa/Nebraska state line. Oh, make that several hundred feet up from that point, actually. :) We might note that as of the days of the Fair, what we now know as Carter Lake, Iowa, was politically part of Council Bluffs.

The Grand Court is clearly shown in the upper left portion of the drawing. Bluffs Tract and the East Midway appear in the foreground and extend to the upper right. The cupola of the Horticulture Building appears to the left of the image on the very bottom. The railroad in the right foreground is the Omaha Belt Line. The steamboat is in Carter Lake, whose banks extended farther south and west in those days. Trolley cars are shown along Sherman Avenue, today's 16th. Street. Many fairgoers traveled to the event via trolley.

The oft-photographed Grand Court is bounded by Pinkney (let's settle upon the contemporary Omaha spelling) Street on the south and today's Pratt Street on the North, extending westward from today's 16th. Street almost to 24th. Street, with the center of the lagoon in the location of today's Evans Street. This tract will eventually be bisected by Florence Boulevard.

Fountains on the Court.

Three footbridges spanned the Grand Court's lagoon.

The Grand Court was incredibly scenic at night!

View to the west toward the United States Government Building, just east of 24th. Street.

And a view looking down the Grand Court to the east. The twin restaurants can be seen in the distance.

The nighttime Fair ambiance was described as "Moonlight without the shadows", as many of the areas were lit with thousands of low-wattage electric bulbs.

The Arch Of The States stood just north of Pinkney in the middle of what would eventually become Florence Boulevard, and served as one of the TME's main entrance gates.

Today's Kountze Park occupies a four-block section of what was the center of the Grand Court.

Looking north on Florence Boulevard (20th. Street) at the Pinkney intersection. In 1898 we would be looking north through the Arch Of The States, the main entrance, and across the center footbridge across the Grand Court Lagoon.

Looking west from the center of Kountze Park. In 1898 we would be looking west from the center footbridge across the lagoon toward the US Government Building. This was one of the most-photographed views of the Fair.

The King Science Magnet Center (nee' Horace Mann Junior High) sits on the northwest corner of Florence Boulevard and Pratt Street, which would have been in the section of the North Midway immediately adjoining the Grand Court.

The corner of 24th. and Evans, which would be directly behind the US Government Building in 1898.

The Midways (North and East) adjoined the Grand Court to the northeast and east respectively.

 The grounds of the North Midway are currently residential, and mostly well-preserved "old growth" pre-war single-family residences.

 The East Midway, however, could best be described as Omaha's Rust Belt! :(

North of the North Midway was the Transportation Section. This consisted of the main Transportation Exhibit Hall, the Railway Depot, served by the Omaha Belt Line, and the Facilities Warehouse, which served as a receiving and staging area for goods shipped by rail to the Fair.

Main Transportation Building, one of the few non-white major structures of the Fair.

Looking west along the abandoned Omaha Belt Line right of way. The Transportation Section would be on the left in 1898, and the eastmost section of the Indian Congress on the right.

Looking east along the former Omaha Belt Line right of way from Florence Boulevard. The Indian Congress grounds would be on the northeast, northwest, and southwest of us in 1898 and the Transportation Section on the southeast, to the right in this view.

Toward the western end of the Transportation Section were a few various agrarian exhibits such as beekeeping and dairy farming. These would have been to our immediate right out of view.

Part of the Transportation Section comprised the Omaha Driving Park, an on-again off-again oval track and spectator stands used at times for horse and auto racing.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was held at the Omaha Driving Park grounds during the fair. They will tell you (the ubiquitous "they") that the roots of the latter-day Sunset Speedway and the Omaha Driving Park are intertwined.

West and north of Transportation was the Indian Congress, consisting of permanent lodging, cultural exhibits, a performance venue, and space for animal husbandry and horticultural displays.

Adjoining the Transportation Section along Shermam Avenue at the north end of the East Midway was the Fair's own electrical generating station.

 This was installed by General Electric and is considered a touche' by GE against Westinghouse, having previously been outbid to light Chicago's Columbian Exposition five years earlier. Both AC and DC were produced by the plant and distributed as needed throughout the Fair.

The power plant ran continuously from mid May through early November.

This is the site of the Power Plant, on the east side of today's 16th. Street.

Some maps incorrectly show the Power Plant in the Transportation Section.

Photos of the East Midway confirm that it was just east of today's 16th. St. and just south of the Commercial Avenue intersection.

The Bluffs Tract, south of the East Midway, featured a second "court" consisting of buildings housing various state, international, and commercial exhibits. The view above, showing the Power Plant in the distance, was taken from the cupola of the Horticulture Building, located dead-center in the Bluffs Tract.

North 14th. Avenue, looking north where the Bluffs Tract was in 1898. The Horticulture Building would have been dead ahead of us in 1898.

This area is west of a very sharp drop-off, which follows the abandoned Omaha Belt Line right of way along the east boundary of the fairgrounds. The Horticulture Building would have been clearly visible in a view from this angle taken in 1898.

It's somewhat difficult to get a good view of the eastmost boundaries of the fairgrounds.

The best vantage point, although mapped as Laird Street, appears to be private property and is closed off on both ends (Cornish Boulevard and Locust Street), or at least it was on a recent Sunday morning.

We can get a fair view of what were the Bluffs Tract and the East Midway from the existing railroad right of way and Carter Lake Shore Drive.

The structures in the distance are on the grounds occupied by the East Midway.

Looking up the bluff toward the East Midway from Carter Lake Shore Drive.

What's a fair without rides!

One of the feature attractions of the Fair was the Giant See-Saw, some 200 feet high! Not only did this serve as a thrill ride, but multiple marriages were performed at altitude.

"To see is free. To saw costs a dime!"

The Giant See-Saw was in the vicinity of today's intersection of North 16th, Sprague Street, and Commercial Avenue.

This would be the approximate location of the Giant See-Saw today.

This view was taken from the southmost car of the Giant See-Saw at its apogee. The view is south by southeast showing Sherman Avenue, today's 16th. Street, the East Midway, and a portion of Carter Lake.

This is a view south on 16th. St. which approximates (I can't very well elevate myself to the same height and angle) the view up 16th. from the Giant See-Saw in 1898.

Shoot The Chute.

This one made a big splash, literally. Very similar to the modern versions of the ride. This one must have been a bit chilly in October!

Scenic Railway:

Although much more tame than today's rides, the Scenic Railway was one predecessor of the modern roller coaster. (Or as they call it in Indiana, "Rolley Coaster.") :) In fact, Coney Island's Thunderbolt, the recently-deceased older sister of the famed Cyclone, which was immortalized in the film Annie Hall, was billed as a Scenic Railway upon opening in 1925.

The north end of the Scenic Railway would be just south of Commercial Avenue in approximately this location today.


World's smallest railway.

Horseless carriage:

Automobiles were bleeding-edge in 1898! While steam and electric traction were commonplace at the time, the personally-operated powered vehicle was a thing of the future. This was, indeed, Tomorrowland, 50-some years before the Autopia.

Notice the tiller or "steering stick", as steering wheels, although common on maritime vessels at the time, would not become commonplace on automobiles for another decade.

Well, uh, I guess this one does truly qualify as a "horseless" carriage. :)

Stationary gasoline engines:

High-tech industrial power for the coming 20th. century.

Word Processing for the soon-to-be 20th. century.

 Come on down to my boat, baby!

Yes, every mother's son (and daughter) could take a scenic cruise on the Grand Court lagoon.


The US Lifesaving Service, now part of today's Coast Guard, put on a weekly rescue and lifesaving demonstration. Eat yer heart out, Ashton Kutcher! :)

High-tech neonatology:

A popular featured exhibit was an early prototype of what would become the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, complete with incubators, the predecessor of the modern-day Isolette, or more generically the infant warmer. Several real-life premees were on display for the public.

Another popular exhibit comprising clinical technology was the Roentgen Exhibit, where fairgoers could experience the thrill of viewing inside themselves with the recently-developed Fluoroscope.

Ray On!

Eat, Drink, and ...

Welkommen! :)


 ... and Brew!

Ice cream, yes! :)

Twin restaurants, on the East Midway, just east of the Grand Court.

Don't drink the water! 

It may save your life! ?????

Omaha's city water must have been scary back then. Chunky Style? :)

Pay drinking fountains! I'm glad those never caught on. :)

Military Aviation:

The Balloon Platoon of US Army observation agents put on a daily show in the sky.

Yes, we had airshows back in 1898! Eat your heart out, Blue Angels! :)

High-tech hydrogen machine for producing the gas used by the aerial balloons. Very flammable! (**WOOoompf!**)

Midway shows abounded.

Remember The Maine! The Spanish-American War ended during the Fair. This show commemorated the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor earlier that year.

Outdoor concerts.

Bandshell on the East Midway. View is east by southeast, with Carter Lake, somewhat wider than it is today, in the background.

Fire! Fire!

Fire on the midway! Yes, a few unfortunate incidents occurred, all quickly handled by the on-site fire, rescue, and medical units.

And then came November ...

They left, faster than they came! All of the structures, and much of the material shipped in for the Fair being simply abandoned.

The Giant See-Saw was salvaged by its maker and reused at several events in the coming years.

There are some reports that a portion of the Kansas Building was relocated to Omaha's Riverview Park and used as a pavilion, but nothing of it remains today.

But wait! There's more! (Well, sortakinda ...)

In the summer of 1899, the Great American Exposition partially revived the TME, using many of the remaining structures. Although it did attract crowds in the tens of thousands, it was nothing compared to the previous year's event.

So, what's there now?

North Omaha. Mostly residential, with that being mostly single family houses. Some public housing remains. There's a meaningful amount of industrial facilities and some remaining retail commercial. I'm almost tempted to p*ss off the New Urbanists by calling it "Mixed Use", but I won't. :) :)

We've seen a few of the scenes, but let's take a deeper dive so to speak ...

The intersection of 16th. and Pinkney was where the 16th. Street trolley line dropped off fairgoers.

This shows signs of being a once-viable neighborhood business district, but is in very sad shape here and now in 2012.

Notice the mint-hued 1940s-vintage service station.

The entire corridor from Binney Street (the southmost boundary of the Fair on 16th.) north to Commercial Avenue is in a state of disuse.

This looks like an old General Electric facility, the better part of a mile south of the TME power plant. It appears they defaced the GE logo enough to comply.

My guess is that it's a grain elevator, but it looks to be disused for decades.

Junk yards abound along 16th. St. :(

The 24th. and Ames area does show signs of life.

Obvious clean-up, fix-up, paint-up work on this commercial row.

Bloom Monuments.

Light industry appears to thrive in the area.

The former right-of-way of the Omaha Belt Line is obvious along Commercial Avenue. The Belt Line, constructed in the 1880s, was abandoned in sections in the 1980s.

All that remains ...

A few artifacts, mostly in the form of historical markers, exist in Kountze Park.

This one commemorates Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and the Omaha Driving Park.

This one the TME itself.

Gazebo, styled ala TME, in Kountze Park.

Marker (somewhat weathered) commemorating the Grand Court.

Let's not forget what does remain of the TME, and that is the excellent photographic record, much of it created by Rinehard and Muhr, and freely available today. Only a small fraction of those images appeared in this post. Seek and you shall find!

That's about it, gang! If I've piqued your interest, please visit the web, library, bookstore, or any of several museums. Countless books featuring the Fair are in print. Your favorite search engine will reveal thousands of photos. I would recommend the Omaha Public Library and the Western Heritage Museum for further research and enjoyment.


Anonymous said...

I believe the miniature train was re-installed in Carter Park Kiddieland and lasted until the 1950's.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard about the new novel about the Omaha Worlds Fair? Its not out yet, but it's by an Omaha guy too.

Adam Fletcher said...

Hey Omababe, here's a new article I just finished on the Carter Lake Kiddieland mentioned by Anonymous above. I'd love to know if you can find anything more!

Martha Grenzeback said...

It would be helpful if you could include info on the source of your photos. We often get questions about where to access certain images, and I'd like to point people in the right direction, especially for any Rinehart photos that we do not own.


Anonymous said...

Awesom article. I had posted a question about the photography of the middle class at the time on Facebook History Group - Forgotten Omaha. This begins to answer my question as to how my family had a fair picture...I had wondered if they had a camera back then? Or if they purchased the photo at the fair?

Anonymous said...

Grew up in Omaha, now in Atlanta and found your blog when I was searching for the Exposition. My great grandfather and his new wife went there from northern Iowa, according to news clips and I wanted to see what they found. Wow! What an amazing vacation that must've been. I plan to check out your blog more, nice!!! Thanks for documenting this great Omaha event, I'd never heard of it before.