The United States was well on the road to recovery from the financial panic of 1893 and an event was deemed necessary to prove the recovery was real. What was needed was some sort of fair or exposition to both celebrate better times and to show off the culture of the Midwest and Western US.
Promoters had in mind an established, medium sized city that was somewhat typical of Midwestern culture. They also wanted to showcase what was possible in the late 1890s for people wanting to live, work, and invest in. A candidate city needed to be a typical example of cities throughout a vast geographical area. Omaha, Nebraska apparently fit the bill.
“A line drawn somewhat irregularly down the map of the United States, beginning at the Canadian border, thence along the eastern sides of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, along the southern border of Missouri, the eastern and southern sides of Texas, thence to and along the Pacific coast, and returning by the Canadian border line to the head of Lake Superior, broadly defines the territory represented in the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in the city of Omaha.”
The exposition committee of community and business leaders from the 24 states and territories located west of the Mississippi had high hopes of spurring growth in their individual and the regional economies. The final decision as to why Omaha was selected rested on the city’s size, centralized location and the convenience of transportation facilities. Omaha lies on the banks of the Missouri River and it was home to the Union Pacific Railroad and other rail companies that passed through the city.
The promoters wanted a major fair and exposition to demonstrate the viability of the western part of the nation. The event was to be large but not on quite the scale of a full-blown world’s fair.
The temporary fair grounds covered a large area in and near Omaha. Several “magnificent”, large temporary buildings and exhibition halls were constructed around the perimeter of a five block long lagoon. The central focus was a giant-sized teeter totter. Approximately $2,500,000 in 1898 dollars were spent to develop and prepare for the expo.
The Trans Mississippi & International Exposition was opened on June 1, 1898. President William McKinley officially initiated the event by an electric switch in Washington D.C.
The fair was typical of other large expositions of the day in that there was an exotic midway that included the “Streets of All Nations”. The layout was reminiscent of the Mall in Washington. There were displays of the latest breakthroughs in technology like X-Rays and incandescent lighting. There was a large zoo area that contained exotic animals.
The Trans Mississippi International Exposition was held in conjunction with the “Indian Congress”. The “Congress” was the brainchild of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Interior Department. They originally wanted to illustrate “the daily life, industry, and traits” of as many native American tribes as possible. What actually came to be was more “cringe worthy” than culturally educational.
Once the greater expo opened , organizers realized that the average fair-goer wanted entertainment. So Indian battle re-enactments, ceremonies, dances, races, and games became the focus. The most popular activities were the Ghost Dance and the major battles of the Indian wars. Even so, the Indian Congress was the largest Native American event within the end of the Indian Wars. There was real cultural exchange and many visitors did take advantage of the educational exhibits.
While the Trans Mississippi & International Exposition did fulfill the aims of the organizers, the greatest effect was on the local economy. Writer W.S. Harwood summed up the expo by saying, “Perhaps the candid Nebraskan would tell you in a moment of frank contriteness that the prime object of this exposition was to boom Omaha.”
Throughout the extreme hot, humid Nebraska summer and a brief spell of unseasonable cold heavy rains, the fair was a success. Over 2,600,000 fair-goers attended to witness the “Progress of the West”. In October, there was “Peace Jubilee Week” that commemorated the end of the Spanish-American War. President McKinley made a brief appearance for that event.
The Trans Mississippi & International Exposition closed with a final ceremony on November 1, 1898.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this snarky quip from former President William Howard Taft: “I have come to the conclusion that the major part of the work of a President is to increase the gate receipts of expositions and fairs and bring tourists to town.”