Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

In October 1892, the world celebrated the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Late in the day on 24 February 1890, Congress in Washington voted to grant Chicago as the site of the great Fair for the United States. The opening of the Fair was scheduled for 1 May 1893.

Much work was needed. The site chosen at 63rd street near the lake on the south side of the city was a wetland. It needed drainage. The lack of firm footings for construction was going to be a problem. The strong personalities of the architects chosen were also a formidable force to be tamed. It was a monumental challenge faced by the city. Many believed it to be an impossible task. Chicago had a reputation as a brash place without the polish of the likes of New York or Philadelphia. Chicago needed to prove to the world it could meet the challenge.

This post is meant as a photographic visit to some of the highlights of the Fair. Links are provided if you want to explore the sources in depth on your own. Records and photos from historical sources give a view of the Fair most people have never seen. You might have heard stories from relatives about a visit to the Fair by some earlier generation. I hope this shows what they saw.



Why the White City?

The buildings were not designed to be permanent structures. This paragraph from the 1893 publication The Book of the Fair explains their appearance and the reason for being viewed as the White City.

In the construction of these, the unsubstantial fabrics of the Fair, nearly all of which must be removed or converted to other uses, one of the most difficult problems was the selection of suitable materials. For the framework of such huge, if temporary buildings, iron and wood must of course be largely used; but for the casings, the mural decorations, and other ornamental and accessory work, a substance must be found which would be at once inexpensive, plastic, and durable. All these qualities were united in a combination of plaster of Paris with jute or other fibre, resembling a stucco and commonly known as staff, one readily manufactures and handled, easily moulded and colored, and such as enabled the architects to complete their designs at small expense, while giving to their structures all the stability required. The group of edifices that form the housing of the Fair have been aptly termed a sketch in lines of iron and wash of plaster; for with this bright, soft compound most of the mammoth skeletons were clothed and adorned, and with its aid have been reproduced some of the choicest designs in ancient and mediaeval architecture.

A paint spraying device was invented to quickly apply a whitewash coat to the plaster staff. Three men could do the work of 21 with this electric pump. Several acres of surface were sprayed in a few weeks.




Opening Ceremonies

President Grover Cleveland was elected in the November 1892 election. (his 2nd non-consecutive term) He was at the opening ceremonies ready to touch the Magic Key. This quote is taken from chapter V of the History of the United States by E. Benjamin Andrews (1905).

Early on the opening day of the Exposition, May 1, 1893, the Chief Magistrate of the nation sat beside Columbus’s descendant, the Duke of Veragua. Patient multitudes were waiting for the gates of Jackson Park to swing. “It only remains for you, Mr. President,” said the Director-General, concluding his address, “if in your opinion the Exposition here presented is commensurate in dignity with what the world should expect of our great country, to direct that it shall be opened to the public. When you touch this magic key the ponderous machinery will start in its revolutions and the activity of the Exposition will begin.” After a brief response Mr. Cleveland laid his finger on the key. A tumult of applause mingled with the jubilant melody of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Myriad wheels revolved, waters gushed and sparkled, bells pealed and artillery thundered, while flags and gonfalons fluttered forth.

New Devices and Products at the Fair.



Examples of Maps

Also from chapter V of the History of the United States

The Exposition formed a huge quadrilateral upon the westerly shore of Lake Michigan, from whose waters one passed by the North Inlet into the North Pond, or by the South Inlet into the South Pond. These united with the central Grand Basin in the peerless Court of Honor. The grounds and buildings were of surpassing magnitude and splendor. Interesting but simple features were the village of States, the Nations’ tabernacles, lying almost under the guns of the facsimile battleship Illinois, and the pigmy caravels, Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, named and modelled after those that bore Columbus to the New World. These, like their originals, had fared from Spain across the Atlantic, and then had come by the St, Lawrence and the Lakes, without portage, to their moorings at Chicago.





Library of Congress | Rand McNally


F.A. Brockhaus, Berlin und Wien | Wikipedia Commons | Public Domain


The view of Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance today as seen by Google Maps.



Official Photographs

Daniel Hudson Burnham was the Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition. He wanted to control as many aspects of the appearance and quality of the fair as possible. To that end he gave a single photographer, Charles Dudley Arnold, the sole rights to make the official photographic record. Burnham retained control of the distribution. He wanted well-dressed, upper-class people in the photographs.

A second photographer was given the contract to rent the folding Kodak cameras called the Columbus. The photographs were referred to as ‘snap-shots’. Fair goers had to pay a steep fee of $2 in order to bring their own cameras to the grounds. Most chose not to bring them.

The entire collection of Arnold’s 115 photographs has been scanned by Project Gutenberg and is available online at this link. The following highlights are from that collection.



Highlights of Photographs

( * ) Denotes large format image showing fine detail in the scene.



The Ferris Wheel

A centerpiece of the exposition was the huge 264 feet high Chicago Wheel, meant to rival the Eiffel Tower. Rotating wheel rides have been around since the 17th century. They were known as ‘pleasure wheels’. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.  secured the patents for the larger metal concept which came to be known as Ferris wheels. Ferris was born in Galesburg, IL, in 1859. The family moved to Nevada when he was six.

He attended college at California Military Academy in Oakland, CA where he graduated in 1876. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY in 1881 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He started work in the railroad and bridge industry. Upon moving to Pittsburgh, he started a company to test metals used in the rail and bridge industries.

In the spring of 1892, Ferris, age 32, attended a presentation about the desire to have a world class engineering marvel. He approached the committee with his plan. They thought he was a lunatic… “The Man with Wheels in his Head.” No one thought such a big ‘pleasure wheel’ could be built or operated. He persisted and was granted a concession to build the Wheel on the Midway Plaisance.

The winter of 1892-93 was severe. Building the piers for the two huge support foundations was a challenge. Pumps ran day and night. Steam was piped in to thaw the frozen sand. Piles were driven down 32 feet. Eight reinforced concrete and masonry piers 20x20x35 feet were finally ready to support the towers which would support the axle.

On March 18, 1893, the 89,320 pound axle, forged in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company, arrived in Chicago… the largest hollow forging in the world at the time, it was 45 1/2 feet long, 33 inches in diameter… Four and one-half feet from each end it carried two 16 foot diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds. On March 20, placing of the first tower post was completed… shortly after came the problem of raising the axle. In an amazingly short two hours, the immense axle assembly was hoisted to the top of the 140 feet high towers and placed neatly in its sturdy pillow blocks.

A steam power plant 700 feet away delivered steam to move the wheel. Westinghouse provided the brakes to hold it still when needed. The exposition opened May 1, 1893. The wheel wasn’t ready until June 21.

The Wheel supported 36 gondolas, each 24 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high, each weighing 26,000 pounds. Each had twisted wire chairs for 38 of the 60 passengers, plate glass windows fitted with heavy screens, doors at each end with secure locks, and firefighting equipment. It was fitted with 3000 new Edison incandescent light bulbs.

The Wheel ran without incident until November 6, 1893. A ride consisted of one revolution for loading-unloading, during which six stops were made. That was followed by nine minutes of nonstop revolution, all for about 50 cents. Riders could see Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. Even foggy and smokey days were popular.




Below is a view from within a car looking at the axle and across to the cars on the other side.

Looking west along the Midway Plaisance…



Opening Day of the Ferris Wheel

More description of the ride from The Book of the Fair Chapter 24. It is about 2/3 of the way down the text.



What Became of the Chicago Wheel?

The Exposition closed on November 1, 1893. The Wheel was unused until April 29, 1894. It was moved to the north side of Chicago next to Lincoln Park. It took 86 days and $14,833 to disassemble it. The Wheel was ready for service by October 1895. It was hoped it would draw restaurants, a band shell, and a Vaudeville theater. There were plans to paint the Wheel and cars. The venture lost money rapidly as people failed to be drawn to it. It was closed down. In June of 1903, the Chicago Tribune reported the sale of the junked Wheel to a bidder at auction for $1800. Workmen dismantled the Wheel for shipment to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Ninety five men took 72 days to take down the wheel. By July, 1904, the Wheel was operating in St. Louis. It stood unused again after the close of that Fair. The Wheel’s end came on the morning of May 11, 1906.

From the Chicago Tribune 12 May 1906

The old wheel, which had become St. Louis’ white elephant died hard. It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge… wrecked its foundation and the wheel dropped to the ground… as it settled it slowly turned, and then, after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapsed slowly. It did not fall to one side, as the wreckers had planned… it merely crumpled up slowly. Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty or forty feet high. The huge axle, weighing 45 tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework. When the mass stopped settling it bore no resemblance to the wheel which was so familiar to Chicago and St. Louis and to 2,500,000 amusement seekers from all over the world, who, in the days when it was in operation, made the trip to the top of its height of 264 feet and then slowly around and down to the starting point. Following the blast that wrecked the wheel, but which failed to shatter its foundations, came another charge of 100 pounds of dynamite. The sticks were sunk in holes drilled in the concrete foundations that supported the pillars in the north side of the wheel.

The wheel was the wonder of two continents by reason of its cost, its dimensions, and its utter uselessness. It was the rival of the Eiffel Tower of Paris. Chicago was glad to get rid of it and St. Louis is said to have witnessed its destruction with satisfaction.

Ferris and his great wheel were gone but he had left, as a legacy to generations of entertainment-seekers, the World’s Greatest Ride.

The Ferris Wheel has become iconic as part of carnivals and fairs all over the world. The familiar ones today are set up in a matter of hours as illustrated here.



Burning of the Fair Grounds

Four fires occurred at the Fair site. The first was on 10 July 1893 when the Cold Storage Building burned killing 17 firemen. This tragedy was witnessed by many fairgoers. The second was on 8 Jan 1894 after the Fair was closed. It burned the Casino, Peristyle, Music Hall, and Manufactures Building. The third fire was in February 1894 and burned the Colonnade. A huge fire on 5 July 1894 burned the Court of Honor, Machinery Hall, Electricity, Administration, Mining, and Manufactures buildings.

This illustration is from a poem about the destruction by fire of most of the Exposition’s buildings during the Pullman Strike of July 1894. The work is called The Vanishing Fair, by H. H. Van Meter; illustrated and embellished by William and Charles Ottman. Chicago: The Literary Arts Co., 1894.



Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Library of Congress

William F. Cody, or Buffalo Bill, was born on a farm near Le Claire Iowa on 26 February 1846. His life story is worthy of a post on its own. He was given the nickname Buffalo Bill when he had a job hunting buffalo to supply meat to the railroad workers of the Kansas Pacific RR.

He met Ned Buntline in 1869 who named him as one of the characters in a novel. By December 1872, he performed in the wild west show The Scouts of the Prairie along with Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. Cody formed his own Wild West group in 1883 that toured annually. He became quite famous world-wide.

The Columbian Exposition refused to grant Cody a commission to perform. That did not deter him from taking advantage of the huge crowds that would be coming to the Fair. He secured a venue across the street from the Fair grounds. See the second map above which is in black and white. You will find the venue near the left center of the map.

It was said that people often attended his Wild West performance, thought they had seen the Fair, and went home happy. The Wild West attendance averaged 12,000 for the 318 performances over the 6 months of the Fair. His total attendance was estimated to be nearly 4,000,000. The Fair attendance was just over 27,000,000. The census of 1890 put the U.S. population at 63,000,000.

Cody was a wise showman. He held performances on Sundays when the Fair was closed. Since he wasn’t on the Fair property, he didn’t have to give half of his receipts to the Exposition Company.

The Newberry Library | Chicago


13 thoughts on “Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

    • I’ve really enjoyed browsing the documents and photos. The record of the fair is actually quite comprehensive. Like many big events of the past, our knowledge of them slowly evaporates with time.

      I’m glad you enjoyed your visit. Thanks for the comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was kind of large. It’s been on my back burner for quite a while. My initial interest came because of the Ferris Wheel. His birthplace is fairly close to my boyhood home.

      The book The Devil in the White City fused many elements of the Fair in my mind for a post. The parts that most interested me were the new technologies and products introduced.

      Earlier this week, I presented this post to a class at our senior center. There were 26 attendees. Many had stories from grandparents who attended the fair. They loved seeing the pictures of things they had heard about in family stories.


      • I figured all the gadgetry must have been part of the appeal to someone interested in physics.

        I can’t push back through relatives to the Columbian Exposition, but I have photographs of my mother and father at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and my own head holds memories of the 1964 follow-up in the same place.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m so glad I poked around some more. When I clicked on the links for this entry in my email notification, I got the dreaded “page not found” notice from every link. On impulse tonight, I clicked on your blog title, and up popped the post. WP gremlins, again.

    It’s a wonderful read. So many things caught my attention, including the reference to the “pigmy caravels, Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, named and modelled after those that bore Columbus to the New World.” There were similar replicas that came to Corpus Christi in the 1990s. I can’t remember which I visited, but it was quite an experience. The Pinta and the Santa Maria have been demolished — and the plaza where they stood now contains an interactive, educational water-physics exhibit. (At least I think it’s been completed.)

    I’ve been a little ambivalent about ferris wheels since getting stuck at the top of a double wheel at the Iowa State Fair. We were up there for about 20 minutes, and that was plenty, thank you very much. I laughed at this: “The wheel was the wonder of two continents by reason of its cost, its dimensions, and its utter uselessness. It was the rival of the Eiffel Tower of Paris. Chicago was glad to get rid of it and St. Louis is said to have witnessed its destruction with satisfaction.”

    It will be interesting to see what happens to the London Eye, and the other big wheels that have been constructed since the millenium.

    Thanks for the great read. I still have some links to follow, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you got the gremlins problems solved. I have those too often. On my iPad, I try to use the reader app.It gets confused easily. For the last 3 days it doesn’t even open.

      It was fun to read the old newspaper and book accounts of the fair. I don’t usually spend a lot of time on historical stuff. This topic had a lot of info on new products and technologies I found interesting.

      Enjoy the additional links. Thanks for your thoughts.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Jim. You described it so poetically. I’ve read quit a bit about the fair, and sometimes it seems so vivid I can almost imagine myself there. Isn’t it intriguing that it was designed to be ephemeral? When I first learned that it made me sad but on reflection it adds a touch of magic to the whole thing. Some buildings remain although after awhile all my history runs together in my head and I can’t remember which.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are a few smaller ones that were removed and relocated in other parts of the country, or other countries. The only major one at the fair is now the Museum of Science and Industry. It was reused in 1933 and made a permanent fixture after that.

      I have presented this blog post as a talk twice in the past few months. Once to the Iowa City Senior Center. The other to a retirement home in IC. Both were to large audiences of 25 and 50 or so. The people loved it. They had parents or grandparents who had been to the fair. Some had items from the fair. Most had read The Devil in the White City.

      Thank you, Melissa.

      Liked by 1 person

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