THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE EXPOSITION OF 1904
On April 20, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – the 1904 World’s Fair – opened to the masses in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a time of a great celebration and the chance for the city to finally come into its own. It was no longer the frontier outpost that provided the gateway to the Wild West – it was now a glittering, modern place, ready to take its place on the world stage.
The Louisiana Exposition was proclaimed as the “greatest World’s Fair to ever be held.” St. Louis had campaigned hard for an earlier fair in 1893 but the Columbian Exposition had gone to Chicago. The loss of this event instilled a great desire on the part of the eminent citizens of St. Louis, especially David R. Francis, who would soon be elected governor of Missouri, to snag the next gala event to come along. A few years later, people began to talk of a fair to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 1904. What better place to have it than in St. Louis, the Gateway to the West? Civil leaders pledged to raise $15 million to the event, the same amount Jefferson paid for the Louisiana Purchase, and the 1904 World’s Fair came to St. Louis.
After lengthy debate, the western side of Forest Park was chosen as the site of the fair. Businessmen of the south side of the city, especially the powerful brewers like William Lemp and Adolphus Busch, were very unhappy with the decision, stating their part of the city was a more attractive and viable location, mostly thanks to the proximity of the Mississippi River, but their lobby was unsuccessful. It would not be until the construction of the Jefferson Hotel and the improvement of streetcars and other city services that much enthusiasm could be raised about the fair being held on the west side. By 1903, though, ninety-four hotels had been built to meet the needs of fair attendees and fifteen more were completed by April 1904.
The section of the park that was chosen for the fair covered a little more than six hundred and fifty acres but it was soon obvious that more land would be needed. Additional tracts were leased from the new, but unoccupied, Washington University campus and this nearly doubled the size of the fairgrounds. Preparations ran at a feverish pitch for several years and as the actual centennial date of April 1903 approached, it was obvious that the fair was not going to open on time. A dedication was held anyway on April 30, 1903 with thousands of troops parading through the grounds and President Theodore Roosevelt on hand to deliver the opening address. Right after that, everything was shut down again and Congress granted the request for a postponement of one year to 1904. This gave the organizers more time to obtain foreign exhibits and to get more companies to plan displays.
By the cold spring of 1904, the Exposition was ready to open. Organizers began to panic, though, on April 20 when a late snowstorm slowed all of the operations. Luckily, the snow was cleared away and on April 30, the fair opened. The (second) Opening Day ceremony was held in the Plaza of St. Louis and included prayer, music and an assortment of speeches. John Phillip Sousa led his band and a choir of four hundred performed a song called “Hymn of the West,” which had been written for the occasion. William Howard Taft, the United States Secretary of War, made the principal address and Mayor David Francis touched a gold telegraph key that alerted President Roosevelt to officially start the fair. At that same moment, ten thousand flags unfurled, fountains began to spray geysers into the air and the fairgrounds opened to almost twenty million visitors from around the world over the course of the next seven months.
The Grand Basin at the 1904 World’s Fair
The architecture and design that went into the fair was breathtaking. A few years before, Peninsular Lake in the park had been re-shaped and re-designed. The lake acquired a new name, the Grand Basin, and it was connected throughout the park with lagoons to provide waterways for boating during the festivities. Above the lake, on the natural semi-circular hill now known as Art Hill, was the Festival Hall, the centerpiece of the fair and one of its foremost attractions. It had a gold-leaf dome that was larger than the one atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On each side were smaller pavilions from which three cascades of water descended 400 feet from the top of the hill to the lake. Along the cascades were large staircases that were adorned with statues, benches and landscaped gardens.
Another view of the Fair
The Colonnade of States, linking Festival Hall and the many fair pavilions, was flanked by giant seated figures, seven on each side, each representing a state that had been carved from the Louisiana Purchase. Eight ornate exhibition palaces surrounded the Great Basin. These included Mines and Metallurgy, Liberal Arts, Education and Social Economy, Manufacturing, Electricity, Varied Industries, Transportation and Machinery. The building that housed the Palace of Machinery had parking space for the 140 automobiles that had been driven to the fair from as far away as Boston. That fact alone was almost as much a marvel as the other wonders of the fair. Long-distance driving was still in its infancy and it was only the year before, in 1903, that an automobile had been driven from coast to coast for the first time. Each of the exhibition palaces was different in design and all were massive in size, each covering several acres.
Although the buildings were detailed, highly decorated and looked as though they had been built to stand forever, they were actually made from temporary, insubstantial materials. They had been constructed from what was called “staff,” a mixture of fibers such as burlap and manila fibers soaked in gypsum plaster, commonly known as plaster of Paris. The hardened material was very adaptable and could be used just like wood. By pouring staff into molds, many ornamental pieces that appeared to be carved by hand in marble could be achieved in a short time. The structure under the staff was always steel or wood so that the buildings didn’t simply collapse.
The Palace of Art
A few of the fair structures were meant to be permanent. One of these was the Palace of Art, constructed of limestone. The building that would be used by more than twenty nations to house priceless works of art during the exposition. Two temporary buildings flanked the center one and a smaller sculpture building was located on the south, creating a beautiful courtyard between them. The temporary buildings were removed after the fair and the Art Palace was donated to the city and today houses the St. Louis Art Museum.
The area of the park now occupied by the St. Louis Zoo was called the Plateau of States, where many states erected houses to greet visitors and to show off their individual attractions. Some of the buildings were replicas of important historic sites like the Cabildo of New Orleans where the Louisiana Purchase had been signed, Tennessee’s Hermitage and Virginia’s Monticello. Missouri, the host state, constructed a lavishly decorated building made entirely of native materials. It was designed to be permanent, with a large dome and a heating and cooling system, something that no other building on the fairgrounds could boast at the time. Unfortunately, on November 19, just two weeks before the end of the fair, the building and all of its contents were destroyed by fire. The fire was caused by faulty electric wiring. Electric lighting, still in its infancy in 1904, was a requirement in all the buildings for its decorative effect. Some of the furnishings were saved from the blaze and are on display today in the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. No attempt was made to replace the structure.
The U.S. Fisheries building was one of the fair’s most popular attractions. It had forty glass-fronted fish tanks that surrounded a center pool for seals. Nearby was the Bird Cage, the largest of its kind ever built. It was created by the Smithsonian Institution to allow sightseers to walk through the cage and interact with the numerous species of birds inside. After the fair, the cage was donated to the city and it became a part of the St. Louis Zoo. Visitors can still experience it today.
The Grand Basin was the focal point of the fair’s activities. Boat parades were held daily along the lagoons and waterways that led away from the Basin and flowed between the exhibition buildings. North of the Basin was the Plaza of St. Louis, where the official proceedings were held. The Plaza was graced with a tall monument for the Louisiana Purchase and the statue of St. Louis. Stretching away from the Plaza was Louisiana Way, the main thoroughfare of the grounds. On one side of it was the United States building and on the other was the French Palace, honoring the two countries involved in the Louisiana Purchase.
The Agricultural Palace and its great Floral Clock
The hill to the west of Forest Park provided a space large enough for the agricultural exhibits and the largest building on the fairgrounds, the Agriculture Palace. It was here that brewers and distillers from around the country showcased their wares. The Agriculture Palace had an eastern facade that was one-third of a mile long. The area was covered with displays showing various types of grasses, pools containing water plants, and windmills. Livestock shows took place there every day. Near the north entrance to the Agriculture Palace was a giant floral clock that was one hundred and twelve feet in diameter. It was made from flowers and foliage and had giant hands that were operated by compressed air. The hands were controlled by a master clock in a small pavilion at the top of the clock at the number twelve. The gardens were illuminated at night with thousands of lights hidden in the foliage, a breathtaking sight when artificial lighting was still a novelty. Thomas Edison himself was brought to the fair to oversee the proper installation of the electrical exhibits.
Washington University’s new campus not only provided much of the space needed for the fair, but it also served as the model for the ideal university. The Administrations Building (Brookings Hall) was the site of all the official meetings and the receptions for important guests. Other buildings furnished space for exhibits and offices and meeting rooms. At the western end of the campus, the athletic fields and gymnasium were used for an elaborate physical culture program and also for the Olympic games of 1904.
At the eastern end of the campus were halls representing foreign countries, including China, Sweden, Brazil and others. The British Building was a copy of Queen Anne’s Orangery at Kensington Gardens. After the fair it was purchased by the university and for years it housed the School of Fine Arts. The college abandoned the building in 1926 when the school was moved into the new Bixby Hall.
A scene from the Philippines Reservation, where fair-goers could observe the “exotic” life of “primitive” people
Perhaps the most fascinating of the exhibits at the fair to turn-of-the-century visitors was the Philippines Reservation. This was the largest and most expensive of the foreign displays and it brought eleven hundred Filipinos to live in St. Louis for almost seven months. One of the goals of the fair’s Anthropological Division was to show Americans how people of “exotic” cultures lived. The U.S. had taken control over the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and people were curious to see the various communities of “primitive” people set up on forty-seven acres around Arrowhead Lake. Each tribe constructed its own village of thatched huts and houses on stilts along the water. The tribe’s customs and homes fascinated visitors and in turn, the Filipinos were enthralled by the trappings of modern society. One tribal chief created a problem when he refused to let his tribe be viewed until a telephone was installed in his hut. Another tribe caused a scandal with their demand for dogs, the main staple of their diet.
The Pike – one of the most exciting and popular attractions at the fair
What most people remembered when they later recalled the 1904 World’s Fair was the Pike, an inviting one-mile section along the northern edge of the fairgrounds. This area was like a giant amusement park with concessions and attractions that had not yet become standard at fairs everywhere. It was here that hotdogs and ice cream cones were first sampled. Fairgoers were introduced to “fairy floss,” a new treat that was to become known as cotton candy. The fair popularized peanut butter and Dr. Pepper, billed as a “health drink.” The forerunner of the ice pop also made its first appearance at the Pike. Known as the “fruit icicle,” it was made of fruit juice frozen in a narrow tin tube. Another welcome “first’ from the Pike was iced tea. It was first served almost as a fluke. A tea house was having a hard time selling hot tea on summer days and one of the employees suggested that they try serving it over crushed ice.
A postcard of the Tyrolean Alps concession at the fair, where St. Louis brewers introduced their superior beers to fair-goers from all around the country
The attractions of the Pike undoubtedly influenced the design of future fairs and amusement parks, just as the White City at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 had influenced the St. Louis event. At the eastern end of the Pike was the spectacular Tyrolean Alps concession, which had been created by the brewers of St. Louis. A castle had been built, along with other structures, to create the illusion of life in the Alps. There were yodelers, musical shows, and a storybook Alpine village. The massive manmade mountain range was crowned with real snow. Visitors could take a train ride into the mountains and dine in the Great Hall, where many official gatherings were held. President Roosevelt was honored there at a banquet given by the brewers. An elevator took guests to the peaks of the Ortler, where a waterfall tumbled into the lake. The whole exhibit was a stunning display created from humble paint, canvas, rock and plaster. It left quite an impression on fairgoers, most of whom would never have the opportunity to visit the real Alps. It also sold enormous quantities of cold beer, which was what it had been designed to do.
Next to the Alps was an Irish village with reproductions of medieval buildings. It featured a restaurant, a facsimile of Blarney Castle, and a theater where visitors could enjoy a show. Also on the Pike was Hagenbeck’s Animal Paradise, which attracted large crowds in those days before modern zoos. There, visitors could see bears and an assortment of exotic animals.
All types of foreign cultures were represented, as were displays about topics as diverse as the deadly Galveston flood, the North Pole and the Siberian wastelands. When visitors had enough of education, they could enjoy entertainment. Fairgoers could catch a performance by a little-known comedian named Will Rogers or hear the new ragtime music, which originated in St. Louis. Scott Joplin, one of the most famous ragtime composers, wrote “Cascade Rag” in honor of the fair. Other rags at the time were “On the Pike” and “Strolling Down the Pike.” In addition to hearing the strains of “Meet Me in St. Louie,” visitors might experience the Magic Whirlpool, the Water Chutes or the Scenic Railway.
The great Ferris Wheel from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was used again in St. Louis for the 1904 fair. When the fair ended, the wheel was destroyed and buried beneath Forest Park.
There was no greater ride at the fair than the immense Observation Wheel. The two hundred and fifty foot-high wheel was created by George Ferris, an engineer who debuted his creation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The “Ferris Wheel” was so successful that it was brought to St. Louis. Sadly, the wheel never left the city at the end of the fair. It was scheduled to be taken to Coney Island but the demolition contractor for the fair found it to be too much trouble to disassemble. So, he dynamited it and sold the scrap for $1,800. The original wheel became the model for all such attractions to follow, but there has never been another of such gigantic proportions.
The visitors came throughout the summer and into the fall of 1904. But as December approached, a sense of sadness filled the air. The Exposition closed down at midnight on December 1. From early morning right up until the time the clock struck midnight, thousands gathered to stroll the Pike one last time and to pay homage to David Francis, the man responsible for bringing the fair to the city. Schools and businesses closed for the day. It was like a carnival that was tinged with grief. The fair’s closing night became one of the wildest nights ever witnessed in St. Louis with the authorities on high alert, should the celebration turn overly buoyant.
As the midnight hour approached, Mayor Francis made a final speech from the Plaza of St. Louis and then he threw a switch that plunged the entire fairgrounds into darkness. A band played “Auld Lang Syne” and then suddenly the air was filled with blinding fireworks as “Farewell” was spelled out, followed by “Good Night.”
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 had come to an end.
The destruction of the fairgrounds began on December 2. Demolition was started by the Chicago Housewrecking Company, which had been awarded the $450,000 contract to remove the fair buildings. Even though the fair was officially closed, visitors were able to view the demolition for a twenty-five cent admission. The demolition process produced mountains of staff, the fiber and plaster of Paris material from which nearly all of the pavilions had been constructed. Useful only for landfill, it was hauled away over miles of railroad tracks that had been laid down before the fair for the construction and removal of the buildings on the grounds. The tracks were covered with asphalt during the fair and then opened again to remove the debris when the fair ended.
The exhibition buildings were removed quickly, as the contract specified that the demolition be completed within six months, but many of the concessions on the Pike remained in place for months. Some of the buildings were so unusual that it was believed that buyers could be found for them. One of them, a cabin that once belonged to General Ulysses S. Grant had been moved to the fairgrounds to be used by the Blanke Coffee Company. No one knew what to do with it at the end of the fair but it was finally purchased by Adolphus Busch and moved to Gravois Road. It is now a part of the Anheuser-Busch company attraction, Grant’s Farm.
The buildings representing the various states and countries were the easiest to get rid of. Many of the ones made from permanent materials were purchased and hauled to nearby sites for use as homes. The New Jersey building was moved to Kirkwood, where it served as an apartment building for a time. The New Hampshire house, after undergoing alterations, became a home on Litzinger Road. The Oklahoma structure was taken to El Reno, Oklahoma, where it became an Elks Lodge. The Michigan and Minnesota structures became permanent fair buildings in their home states. The New Mexico building became a public library in Santa Fe. The Iowa building become an asylum for alcoholics. Belgium’s building was purchased by Anheuser-Busch and was used for many years as the company’s glass works. The Swedish building was taken to Lindsborg, Kansas, where it became the Art Department for Bethany College. The fifty-foot statue of Vulcan, a donation from the city of Birmingham, Alabama, was removed to its home city on seven freights cars and while it rusted in storage for years, it was later restored on Red Mountain overlooking the city. Many other statues from the fair were given to the city of St. Louis and were assigned to parks and public places.
An attempt was made to preserve the Pike as a permanent attraction in St. Louis, with the reproduction of the Alps being the major benefit of the plan. However, officials at Washington University viewed an amusement center of this sort as being too big a distraction for the students and lobbied against the idea. Adolphus Busch finally purchased the Alps, planning to install them as an attraction in Forest Park, along with a summer theater. This plan never came about and eventually the mountain range was destroyed.
Although little remains from the fair in the city today, the Louisiana Exposition has never been forgotten. Never again would a World’s Fair be held that had the magnitude of the St. Louis Fair and while others would follow, the magnificence of that brief season in 1904 would leave a lasting mark on the country, and perhaps the world.