HAMPTON ROADS — All the world’s a fair. At least at the turn of the twentieth century it was.
Let’s take a step back in time for a moment. Expositions, or better known in common vernacular as “World’s Fairs,” were all the rage. At a time when transportation and traveling was limited, these fairs brought the world to one location. With exhibits that brimmed with cultural curiosities, scientific innovations, historical highlights, and other items of interest to patrons, people flocked to their closest fairs to be magically transported to some far off world. Between 1876 and 1917, approximately 100 million people visiting the various fairs held around the globe.
To limit the scope bit, think of these fairs as the father to the modern day theme park.
One of the more intriguing but also somewhat forgotten pieces of Hampton Roads’ history is our own World’s Fair. In celebration of the tercentennial of the founding of Jamestown, officials wanted to capitalize on this fair craze and bring the world right to our small pocket in southeastern Virginia.
The Beginning of a Local Fair
In 1901, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill which authorized an exposition to take place in 1907. While this may have seemed premature, something of this magnitude required a great deal of planning.
That same year, the Jamestown Exposition Committee was formed, led by Harry St. George Tucker.
The first task at hand was how in the world to pay for such an ambitious project. Stock shares in the fair were sold, with preferred shares selling at $100 (adjusted for inflation, this would be approximately $3,153).
With funding rolling in, now the next task at hand was to determine where the fair would be held. Virginia Governor Andrew Jackson Montague wanted the exposition to take place adjacent to water in order to allow the world’s navies to participate.
The obvious first location suggested was either Jamestown or Williamsburg. After much study and weighing of benefits, it was determined that neither of these localities would be suitable for the infrastructure required for the volume of visitors the Committee was expecting.
Other localities around the Tidewater lobbied hard for the exposition to come to their town. The City of Norfolk’s residents formed a committee and campaigned to have the fair held in the city. After much discussion, Norfolk won out due to its central location in the region and its abundance of deep harbors.
From the committee was formed the Jamestown Exposition Company, which was headquartered in the Atlantic Hotel, once located on Granby and Main streets.
An Idea Into a Plan
The original idea was to use the exposition to highlight local indigenous culture. However, as the plan for the fair evolved, it transformed into an emphasis on the region’s long standing relationship with the country’s military, particularly the U.S. Navy.
A special naval showcase was planned to exhibit the Navy’s building projects of steel and steam over wood and sail. President Theodore Roosevelt was especially enthusiastic about the project as he wanted America’s military might to be center stage.
A parcel of land that was approximately 340 acres at Sewell’s Point was purchased and now all that was left was to build.
Building an Exposition
The problem with Sewell’s Point was that it was undeveloped, completely disconnected from the city center of Norfolk, and was naturally an area in which building the necessary infrastructure would be difficult.
Workers toiled long days in the heat and humidity to clear the scrub woods, drain the salt marshes and build the necessities to support just such a program. Many fell ill from the copious mosquitos that called the old swamp home. A reservoir was put in. Electrical, telephone and telegraph wires were strung throughout the property. Additionally, railroad tracks were extended from downtown Norfolk into Sewell’s Point.
Next was to create a whole world in the 340 acres in which the fair would occupy. Neo-Colonial architecture was the primary design of the buildings, creating a fictionalized and idealized version of colonial aesthetic. Electricity was wired in and on many of the buildings, making the Jamestown Tercentennial the first large scale World’s Fair to be fully illuminated.
While the buildings were gorgeous, they were not meant to be permanent. There was a rush to build and temporary materials were used.
A fire station was established with 40 firemen and 13 horses to serve the department. Additionally, a Life Saving Station (predecessor to the modern U.S. Coast Guard) built a service center and ran drills twice daily.
What was constructed was a small city. While its grandeur was illuminating, it was far from complete.
On April 26, 1907, the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition opened its gates to the public. Guests flooded in with an adult admission of 50¢ and children 25¢.
Everyone gathered at the parade feel, with nervous anticipation for the guest of honor. In the stands waited politicians, Chinese Ambassador Minister Sir Chentung Liang-Cheng, German Ambassador Baron Speck von Steinberg, and Harry St. George Tucker. Then the guest of honor took his seat: President Theodore Roosevelt.
The crowd was restless as speeches were given. Noting the lack of attention from the spectators, President Roosevelt leapt atop the reviewer’s table and gave a rousing speech about patriotism.
After a pass in review which showcased many military troops, crowds scattered to explore the grounds.
What they found was anything but magical. The workers were unable to complete construction by the opening date. Ladders remained propped against half built buildings and piles of dirt and mud were scattered about the grounds. The Exposition’s construction was not considered fully finished until September of that year.
However, the lack of completion did not deter visitors who flooded the gates each day for the enthralling experiences that awaited them in this magically themed wonderland.
An Other Worldly World’s Fair
In the early twentieth century, it was definitely not a common occurence for people to travel outside of their geographic sphere. For Tidewater locals, this world’s fair coming to our quaint corner of Virginia, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. They could travel to many of the different American states, a handful of countries around the world, experience science, innovation, history, literature, art, and other odd attractions in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
On May 21, 1907, Lincoln Beachey flew his lighter-than-air (LTA) craft (or dirigible) above the fair, remaining in sustained flight for twenty minutes. A month later, famous French aviator, Eugene Godet, also took the exposition’s sky in a French LTA craft.
Military was a massive highlight of the fair. The largest events mustered approximately 11,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines. The War Department was responsible for various military-related exhibits. But perhaps the biggest military event of all was when President Roosevelt launched The Great White Fleet from Sewell’s Point.
The different exhibit buildings, also called “palaces,” exhibited larger-than-life examples of technology, mines and metallurgy, concept automobiles and other types of transportation crafts, agricultural tools, and fine gems and coal. There was a palace for history, another for machinery.
Different companies also built their own exhibit building, including New York’s Larkin Company; notable as it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But there was so much more to this fair than just exhibit buildings.
Come back to WYDaily on Friday, July 2 to read Landmark Lost: The Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition Part 2.