For a single day, at the tail end of a single, magical summer, Omaha seemed the center of the universe.
A massive crowd — a crowd nearly as big as the entire city's population — surged from downtown, where it had overrun every last hotel and restaurant and saloon.
The mass of humanity rushed north toward a giant, gold-domed building championed by a presidential candidate, paid for by the U.S. Congress and designed by a famed architect.
This was big. Bigger than Bono eating at the Dundee Dell, bigger than when Warren Buffett took Bill Gates to Gorat's, bigger even than that time when Lady Gaga waved at some people outside a radio station.
The gold-domed building stood 278 feet tall and towered over eight square blocks lined with majestic white structures. The buildings gleamed in the sunlight. At dusk, they lit up. Each night, they glittered like diamonds. The city's fathers — the Omaha bankers and CEOs and railroad tycoons — who had turned this event from dream to reality, looked at those glittering buildings and hoped this would never end.
You see, this was the College World Series and the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the Maha Music Festival rolled together, multiplied by 100 and then spread out for five whole months. And this day — this was the high point.
On this day, at the appointed hour, the guest of honor strolled through a crowd estimated at 110,000 people. He walked arm-in-arm with the Omaha banker who had spearheaded the event. He ascended the steps of the gold-domed building, doffed his hat to the crowd, and began to speak.
It's hard to believe, but this was even bigger than Peyton Manning yelling out Omaha's name a million times in the Super Bowl.
The date: Oct. 12, 1898. The speaker: William McKinley, president of the United States.
The event: The Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, better known today as Omaha's world's fair. McKinley's speech served as the high point in the stratospheric summer of 1898.
“This was the biggest, most important thing that ever happened in Omaha,” says Jeffrey Spencer, an Omaha historian and author who has extensively researched the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition. “There's not been anything of this scope, before or since.”
Omaha's biggest summer has largely faded from our collective memory, in large part because our collective memory doesn't often stretch 116 years into the past. But a new novel by author Timothy Schaffert, a related exhibit at the Omaha Public Library and a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln digital archive featuring thousands of rarely seen exposition photos are together giving second life to the long-forgotten moment when Omaha was king.
Now we can peer 116 years into the past and consider what Omaha gained from the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition. We can also look back and see the many things that not even a world's fair could fix.
“It soothed and distracted from the grim reality of urban life,” says Schaffert, whose new novel, “The Swan Gondola,” is set in Omaha during the world's fair. “Even as it denied that reality existed.”
The very idea for an Omaha world's fair bloomed from the desperation of a grim financial reality. The Panic of 1893, caused by a couple of familiar-sounding villains — a building bubble and a series of big bank failures — eventually sent cattle and grain prices plunging. A group of Omaha businessmen, frustrated by the recession, met in 1896 and decided that holding a world's fair might give the city a much-needed economic boost.
The Omahans had a regional example to emulate. In 1893, the Chicago World's Fair and its majestic “White City” drew 27 million people and the eyes of a country.
The Omahans also had a prominent mouthpiece. William Jennings Bryan, famous populist, presidential candidate and the one-time editor of the Omaha World-Herald, spoke at the meeting and came out strongly in favor of an Omaha world's fair. Soon thereafter, Congress appropriated $100,000 to help Omaha make the fair a reality.
A banking executive with the perfect 19th-century name of Gurdon Wattles took the reins as chairman of the effort. He and the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition board raised more money. They hired prominent architect Thomas Kimball, who would eventually design Omaha's Burlington Station, Public Library and St. Cecilia Cathedral, to oversee construction. And they searched for the perfect plot of land on which to stage the biggest fair Omaha had ever seen.
A land developer named Herman Kountze made the exposition board an offer they couldn't refuse. He had been unsuccessfully trying to sell plots of pasture land in what is now north Omaha. Take my land for free, he said. In return, all I ask is that the improvements you make — the streets, the sidewalks, the utilities — will be mine when the fair is over.
So the fairgrounds were largely set: roughly 200 acres of ground between 16th and 24th Streets, bounded by Pratt Street to the north and Pinkney Street to the south.
Now they just needed majestic buildings. Fast. The solution: Buildings made of a mixture of hemp fiber, cement and Plaster of Paris.
Buildings meant not to stand the test of time, but to look majestic for the fair and then almost immediately crumble.
“Brick and stone would've been too expensive,” Spencer says. “They didn't have that kind of time or that kind of money.”
After a harried year of construction, and work for thousands of contractors, carpenters, plumbers and electricians, the fair opened on June 1, 1898.
Adults paid 50 cents, children a quarter, and waded into a world that stunned them, according to the flowery newspaper accounts of the day.
There were 11 large, white buildings and dozens of smaller ones surrounding a giant lagoon on which lovers could take gondola rides. There was a miniature railroad, an exhibit of “horseless carriages” — a forerunner to the automobile — exotic dancers from the Middle East, a street scene from Cairo, strange fortune tellers roaming the midway, ostriches pulling carriages, food and clothing from around the world and, last but not least, an exhibit that showcased babies sleeping in incubators.
On the fairgrounds' outskirts there was an Indian Congress where 500 Native Americans, including the famed chief Geronimo, gathered and showed the fairgoers how they lived, dressed and danced.
Fairgoers flocked from around the Midwest, riding the nine different railroads that stopped in Omaha. Many Omahans likely went three or four or five times, Spencer says, bringing the official attendance to about 2.6 million.
And on Oct. 12, near the fair's end, President McKinley's visit sparked what is arguably the biggest one-day celebration Omaha has ever witnessed.
The national press converged on Omaha. So did 110,000 people, who crowded around the stage and hung from light poles to listen to McKinley give a speech that focused, of all things, on international relations.
And then, on Halloween, it was over.
The buildings had already begun to crumble. A group of entrepreneurs attempted to hold another fair in the spot in 1899, but that one proved a financial disaster.
The Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition itself proved a boon to the city's hotels and saloons, but the benefit to other businesses, like department stores, wasn't as great as the city fathers had hoped. It put Omaha on a national stage for a few months, but that stage proved fleeting — the population didn't jump as hoped, Spencer said, and the city didn't take its place alongside Chicago or St. Louis.
Herman Kountze didn't find a booming market for those plots of land. On the bright side, he did get himself a park, Kountze Park, which is today located right in the center of where the fair was held.
And while Omaha did experience economic growth in the early 20th century, that post-fair growth would for decades be marred by the corruption and criminality of powerful Omaha underworld boss Tom Dennison.
“Omaha was a little ahead of itself,” says Spencer, the historian. “They had big dreams, they had the thought that, 'If we have this event, people will come.' But they didn't think clearly about how all these dreams would be realized. They forgot to think about what would keep people here after the Trans-Mississippi Exposition closed.”