Greatest Event Since The Civil War

Really. Journalist Richard Harding Davis called the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition "the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War." Almost 28 million people visited the fair at a time when the US population was only about 65 million.

Everything about the show was exotic and emmense. It occupied over a square mile and filled more than 200 buildings. One exhibit hall had enough interior volume to swallow the US Capitol, the Great Pyramind, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and Saint Paul's Cathedral all at once. One woman walked 1300 miles from her home so she could see it all. Other people arrived on the more than 2000 trains that passed through Chicago daily.

Never before had so many of history's famous people gathered in one place: Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Clarence Darrow, Houdini, Scott Joplin, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Nikolas Tesla, Woodrow Wilson, Diamond Jim Brady, Teddy Rooseveld, Phillip Armour, Lillian Russell, Marshal Field, Frank Lloyd Wright.

At the fair they tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat. Elias Disney worked as a carpenter building the fairgrouds, and years later regailed his young son Walt with tales of the magical realm. A young engineer named Ferris built the main attraction, a huge wheel capable of thrilling 2000 people at a time in enclosures the size of train cars. For opening day Francis Bellamy, editor of Youth's Companion magazine, penned a short dedication for kids across the country to recite in unison. It began, "I pledge allegiance to the Flag and to the Republic for which it stands. . . ."

If you'd like to know more, there's a fascinating 2003 bestseller The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. It's an engrossing (and occasionally gory) history of the fair that reads like a novel.



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