The Great White City

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Moreover, Chicago had become conscious of herself as a metropolis, a focus of trade, spokesman for the Prairie West—a combustible mixture of optimism, acumen, elbow-grease, and idealism that was ready to explode into action given the right catalyst. Meat and grain still formed her principal exports, but imports now included wines, oysters, chocolates, brocades, laces, and even “wigs, curls and ringlets"—scathingly described in one editorial as “the humbugs and fripperies of the East.” Gold was in her banks, and the wives and daughters of her merchant princes knew Paris, London, and Rome. The city may have resembled Rosalie the Prairie Flower, but she was fast preparing to take a decisive step forward in her civic and social progress.

A unique feature of Chicago’s Fair was the active participation of a majority of her leading citizens, and their conviction that this must be not merely another trade fair but an exposition that would widen the horizons of Chicago, and of the world. Only midwestern naïveté, perhaps, could have entertained so presumptuous a purpose. But along with its crudities this generation culturally bounded by the Bible, Shakespeare, and Horatio Alger retained an as-yet-unshaken faith in human perfectibility. The men behind the Fair—Lyman Gage, Harlow Higinbotham, John Root, Martin Ryerson, Charles Hutchinson, Edward Ayer, Kabbi Emil Hirsch, Dr. Frank Gunsaulus, and many others—were characterized by a genuine idealism.

The planning committee included leading architects and artists from all parts of the country. Halsey Ives, head of the Fair’s Department of Fine Arts, declared that “Never in modern times have men of widely different characteristics been brought together in a work that has resulted in such complete unity of action.” As evidence of their determination that this fair should be “more than the mere mechanical and material triumphs of mankind,” an Auxiliary was created, to arrange a series of World Congresses at which humanity’s major problems would be discussed—“to promote the unity, prosperity, peace and happiness of the world,” a formidable program backed by men like Whittier, Tennyson, Carl Schurz, Max Müller, and Cardinals Gibbons and Manning. The subjects of discussion were to be education, religion, social reforms, labor problems, the substitution of arbitration for war, and the establishment of a world court to adjudicate international disputes. One congress, with surprising foresight, was devoted to “Africa as a New Factor in World Affairs.” At another, on aerial navigation, speeds for aircraft as high as sixty to eighty miles per hour were predicted. At the Science Congress were Tesla, Helmholtz, and Edison, who declared that “No man who makes his living by his intellect can afford to miss the Fair.”

A preliminary dedication and parade were held on October 21, 1892, but the winter that followed produced an unprecedented series of blizzards, alternating with arctic cold, which made construction a nightmare. Men worked bundled up like mummies; picks rang uselessly against the iron ground; and almost an acre of skylights fell under the weight of snow. Delivery of engines, boilers, and parts was delayed. The chief of mechanical construction resigned in despair. Eastern newspapers, especially in cities that had competed for the Fair, gleefully reported that nothing would be ready for the opening in May, that accommodations would be poor and extortion general. The railroads showed no interest and made only token rate reductions.

But Chicago, stubborn as ever, managed a near miracle, transforming the slushy scrub-oak wastes along its lake shore into landscaped parks and islands where lagoons mirrored the white palaces above them. To counteract eastern propaganda, an unexpected bit of luck turned up in the form of a spring meeting of the National Editorial Association in Chicago. The association’s members made their own inspection and circulated their conclusion that “rumors of the incomplete state of the Fair were much exaggerated, and rumors of extortion unfounded.” The Fair opened on May 1, with the presidential blessings of Grover Cleveland. “As by a touch,” he said in his address, “the machinery that gives life to this vast Exposition is now set in motion, so … let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in all time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity, and the freedom of mankind.” The orchestra burst into the Hallelujah Chorus, electric fountains leaped skyward, cannons boomed, flags flew to mastheads, and the crowds went wild.