The Chicago Columbian Exposition
From May 1 to October 31, 1893, Chicago and its glorious Columbian Exposition
played host to over 27 million visitors -- nearly one quarter of the country's
population at the time. This event was the last and the greatest of the
nineteenth century's World's Fairs -- and a landmark event in American
history and culture.
The Fair was immensely popular and was touted as being the greatest
cultural and entertainment event in the history of the world -- an amazing
achievement for a city that had so recently emerged phoenix-like out of
the ashes of the disastrous Chicago Fire of 1871.
Many Travellers arrived by "Exposition Flyers" -- Pullman coaches travelling
at the amazing speed of 80 m.p.h. It was before the Age of the Automobile,
before the invention of the airplane, before the World Wars, and before
so many of the inventions and conveniences that we now take for granted
in the 21st Century. The world, led by a young, emerging and boisterous
America, had just entered the Age of Electricity and the promises of things
to come were as exciting as in any time in the history of Mankind.
The World's Columbian Exposition was a tremendously popular and influential
social and cultural event. Reflecting on the progress of America in the
400 years since Columbus, it presented the country as a cultural, commercial,
and technological leader. The 1890s was a time when Americans were undergoing
the sometimes painful shift from an agricultural to an industrial society.
Unlike the state of depression outside the Fair's gates and in so many
of the world's cities, the well-managed and seemingly uncorrupt Fair had
unbelievably clean streets, well-behaved crowds, the most advanced
sanitary and transportation systems, and most of all, it was beautiful
-- so unlike the grey and dusty cities many of the visitors had come from.
In many respects, the Fair in fact was a utopia.
Utilizing the natural landscape of Jackson Park, the designers created
a system of lagoons and waterways fed by Lake Michigan. These bodies of
water served as decorative reflecting pools, waterways for transportation,
and provided a place of respite necessary for weary summer visitors --
the shady Wooded Island.
The 14 main buildings surrounding the waterways were in the Beaux-Arts
style, with its emphasis on logic, harmony, and uniformity. The Court of
Honor buildings-- surrounding the Grand Basin with its massive gilded statue
of the Republic -- were covered with "staff," or stucco, giving the main
buildings a magnificent whiteness and dazzling visitors who arrived at
the rail terminal just outside the Fair's gates.
On opening day 100,000 people crowded the Court of Honor to watch President
Cleveland touch a golden lever, electrically sending into motion the dynamo
engines that powered the Fair. After three years of preparation and at
a cost of $28 million, the Fair was finally underway. Visitors over the
six months of the Fair's operation were excited, entertained, and overwhelmed.
The event was calculated to be awe-inspiring, and in the eyes of most people
it achieved its goal.
Visitors were greeted with 633 total acres of Fairgrounds, 65,000 exhibits,
and restaurant seating for 7,000. They were amazed by the clean and safe
elevated railway and the electric launches plying the canals and lagoons.
Guests, on the way to the entertainment and the spectacle of the Midway
felt quite safe with the hundreds of Columbian Guards and plainclothes
detectives on the grounds. Hundreds of concessionaires, selling everything
from souvenir paperweights to popcorn and the newly invented carbonated
soda, hamburgers, juicy fruit gum, Cracker Jack and picture postcards,
crowded the walkways.
The world's first Midway featured an endless array of exotic exhibits
and rides -- rides such as the hot air balloon and the first ever giant
Ferris Wheel that moved over 1,000 riders at a time with speeds of 50 m.p.h.
Dignitaries, artists, writers, thinkers, inventors, adventurers and showmen
from all over the world gathered here for inspiration and entertainment.
John Philip Sousa wrote an Exhibition march, the magnificent buildings
inspired L. Frank Baum
to create his Emerald City, Scott Joplin developed Ragtime while playing
on the grounds, Dvorak composed the New World Symphony, the Pledge
of Allegiance and Columbus Day were introduced,
It was this fantastic world in which young Ed Burroughs and his fellow
cadets from Orchard Lake spent most of the month of June, 1893. Not only
did they spend their free time exploring the delights and mysteries of
this exotic environment, they also enjoyed parading around the grounds
in their military uniforms, basking in the adulation of curious thousands
of fairgoers. At the end of their stay as cadets they attended the Michigan
Military Academy graduation, held on the grounds, with their former idolized
commandant and one of the most popular writers of adventure stories of
the day, Captain Charles King, in attendance.
Ed soon returned for the remainder of the summer to assist his father's
company -- the American Battery Company -- in showcasing their products
in a display in the futuristic Electricity Building. The most exciting
part of his duties involved the driving of what many say was the first
electric horseless carriage in Chicago. The sight of this strange vehicle
caused near pandemonium wherever it appeared on the grounds.
The influence of this amazing summer of '93 upon the imagination of
the young, impressionable Edgar Rice Burroughs was undoubtedly profound.
Almost all of the wondrous adventures and the fantastic worlds that he
would eventually transcribe to paper 20 years later can be linked to events
that he experienced at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.
In an ongoing series of "What if...?" or "You are there . . ." first
person journal accounts we will draw upon extensive Columbian Expo research,
combined with what is known of ERB's real life activities during that summer,
and with what the future held for him over the next incredible 60 years
of his life.