Although even many Seattleites seem oblivious to the fact, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of their city’s first world’s fair. It was on June 1, 1909, that the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P) opened its gates and concessions on what is now the campus of the University of Washington, north of downtown. Around 80,000 people trooped through the fair on opening day, and by the time it finally shut down in mid-October of that year, more than 3.7 million tourists had passed through its turnstiles. Although the exposition wasn’t the immediate boon to local development and statewide population growth that its organizers had envisioned, it did showcase Washington’s resources and reinforced close connections between Seattle, the aborning business markets of Asia and what was then known as the District of Alaska. As the city’s present-day mayor, Greg Nickels, maintains in his foreword to the new Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington’s First World’s Fair: A Timeline History, the A-Y-P “put Seattle on the national map when most of the country still considered the Pacific Northwest frontier country.”
It was inevitable that a book commemorating this centennial should be published. What’s fortunate is that this project was undertaken by the folks at HistoryLink, an ever-growing, 11-year-old Internet database of stories from Seattle’s and Washington state’s past. Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker are both historians associated with that site. They had at their fingertips a wealth of research already accumulated about events, characters and esoterica associated with the fair and the Emerald City as it existed in the early 20th century. Drawing as well from the photographic resources at the UW Libraries Special Collections, the Washington State Historical Society, and other such organizations, they have put together an image-rich and graphically elegant work that offers the reader a sense of how the A-Y-P came into being, a taste of what visitors to that extravaganza would have seen and perspective on how the 1909 exposition led Seattle to host its better-known second world’s fair in 1962. (You know, the one with the Jetsons-ish Space Needle.)
The text recounts some of Seattle’s history before the A-Y-P, including the financial bust provoked by the Panic of 1893 and the boom that resulted from the city’s involvement in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899. It tells about the various sites considered for the expo (including what’s now Woodland Park, on Green Lake, where the city’s zoo currently stands) and the compromise that organizers had to make in order to situate the A-Y-P on the then-underdeveloped UW grounds. “One potential financial issue with the selected site,” the authors explain, “was that the sale of liquor, a big money-maker at other exhibitions, was forbidden by law within two miles of the University of Washington campus. Thus, the A-Y-P Exposition would become the only dry world’s fair in history.” And of course this book talks about all of the promotions, fund-raising, and planning that went into creating the fair, which its supporters promised would outshine Portland, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of four years before.
One thing I had forgotten was that the Olmsted Brothers, the famous Massachusetts landscapers charged with beautifying the north Seattle exhibition grounds, had originally proposed filling them with “fair buildings modeled after traditional Russian architecture, a nod to Alaska’s settlement by Russians.” Fortunately, San Francisco architect John Galen Howard, who was hired to supervise the construction of pavilions and exhibit halls on the property, favored the more classical, “City Beautiful” look popularized by Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. So there was no proliferation of onion domes, but there were plenty of elaborate friezes, cascading waterfalls and grand colonnades--including that on the Forestry Building, which promoted the Northwest’s timber industry and was fronted dramatically by 124 unpeeled fir-log columns four-and-a-half feet in diameter and 37 feet high. Less ostentatious and more brazenly bizarre edifices decorated the Pay Streak midway, where could be found “re-enactments of real events (the Monitor and the Merrimac, the Battle of Gettysburg), representatives of seemingly exotic primitive people who were actively marketed as uncivilized (the Inuit/Eskimos, the Philippine Igorrote Tribe), premature babies who passively demonstrated the efficacy of as yet unconventional technology (the Baby Incubator Exhibit), entertainers with various degrees of subtlety, amusement rides, games of skill and chance, and all manner of carnival flimflam.”
Chock-a-block with intriguing sidebars (about woman suffrage of the time and the growing use of hand-held cameras, for instance), souvenir artwork (admission tickets, buttons commemorating special days during the fair’s run, etc.), and a wonderful section devoted to profiles of every exhibition building, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, is as much a banquet for the eyes as it is satisfying to those of us hungry for substantive history-telling.
You can take a “cybertour” of the old A-Y-P fairgrounds, and see what has become of the site, by clicking here.
(This review appeared originally in January Magazine.)