Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 1909 -- A Slideshow of Seattle's First World's Fair

  • Posted 11/13/2004
  • Essay 7082

The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- the A-Y-P for short -- was Washington's first World's Fair. The exposition opened in Seattle on June 1, 1909, and 79,976 visitors attended on the first day. The agricultural and manufacturing exhibits were mostly from North America, though large buildings were also raised for European and Pacific Rim Exhibits.

The A-Y-P Exposition's official symbol was an art nouveau variation on a classical tableau: the three graces. Seattle's graces represent the directions of her ambition: East, West, and North.

At the center, the North cups a pile of golden nuggets in her hands. To her right side, the Asian East holds a trans-Pacific steamer. To her left, the Occidental West holds a railroad engine.

The meaning is clear. Seattle's old promotion of itself as the port nearest to Japan and China is joined with a new notion that it was also the gateway to the wealth and luck of Alaska.

The four-and-a-half-month-long A-Y-P Exposition was the celebration that rejoiced in the considerable accomplishment of convincing both real sourdoughs and wannabes that Alaska was a suburb of Seattle.

When A-Y-P Exposition promoters learned that their plans for a fair in 1907 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush conflicted with Jamestown, Virginia's plans for its own summer-long tercentenary exhibition in 1907, they postponed Seattle's fair for two years.

This delay also allowed A-Y-P promoters to more easily fulfill their claim that the A-Y-P Exposition would be "the fair that kept its promise." The pledge was simple enough. This fair had promised to open on time and it did -- on June 1, 1909.

The A-Y-P’s most sensational experience was, probably, the fulfillment it gave to the dreams of local pioneers. It was miraculous and astonishing that ...

a town that in 1859 looked like this could construct a vision ...

like this of the Great White City on the hill in only 50 years! While grand, this creation was also conventional.

Only four years earlier, Portland, Oregon, had built its own Lewis and Clark Exposition. Theirs, and the ...

1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Fair, were summer-long centennial celebrations of the Jeffersonian exploration of the West. All these American fairs -- in Seattle, Jamestown, Portland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and elsewhere -- were inspired by ...

the great World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. That Chicago celebration created the "white city" model of grouped neo-classical temples. In addition, it continued to influence institutional architecture -- state houses, banks, and schools -- until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Arctic Circle, the sublime "white city" center of the A-Y-P Exposition, is seen best in this official aerial of it photographed from a balloon. This setting featured six white landmarks forming two wings of three each descending from a keystone of the domed Government Building. The six were named for Asia, Alaska, Hawaii, Europe, and the Arts of Agriculture and Manufacturing.

The exhibits inside ranged from sensational to mundane. For instance, the Agriculture Building included what it advertised as the "first display of clams ever shown at an exposition."

Across the way in the Manufactures Building was a telephone switchboard where The Seattle Daily Times reported "four pretty girls are doing real work handling the telephone company's business on the Exposition grounds."

The Hawaii Building, to continue quoting the Times review, featured "piles of fruits including a pyramid of coconuts and a pine-apple 30 feet high composed of small pineapples cunningly arranged."

The California Building featured an elephant constructed of exotic nuts.

The centrally placed U.S. Government Building featured at its entrance a marine hospital operating room with masked, life-sized wax figures so real that the scene, according to the Times report, "sent shivers up the backs of the bewildered visitors."

The Alaska Building featured, of course, gold -- one million dollars worth of it in gold dust, bricks, and nuggets. Security measures taken for the display were advertised as much as its dollar value.

The Arctic Circle embraced an impressive waterworks featuring a series of cascades which, from the perspective of its base, seemed to flow from the keystone Government Building's grand main entrance.

The effect was especially alluring at night when the lights behind the cascades answered those outlining the circle's classical structures to provide a very elegant display.

The destination of the cataract was the Geyser Basin, a fountain with a reflecting pool beside which fair goers could refresh their spirits with the white noise of the waterworks ...

or restore their soles on the park benches that surrounded the pool.

The view from the Government Building down the line of the Cascades was named Rainier Vista for the grand view of its centerpiece, Mt. Rainier. But not this grand! In the official Exposition postcard the mountain has been spliced-in much nearer to the campus than the roughly 60 miles to its summit. Here it seems to be looming somewhere over Renton.

Now the Expo's casades move only with the "hydraulics" of university students, but ...

the Geyser Basin survives as the University's Drumheller Fountain. Its popular name Frosh Pond reflects the by-now-largely-forgotten tradition of throwing freshmen into it.

Today the Arctic Circle is surrounded by several of the University of Washington's mostly Academic Gothic structures.

The A-Y-P's Arctic Circle with its sublime architecture and heroic art was meant to raise the standards of popular taste -- to educate and edify more than to entertain.

Meanwhile the popular imagination was paying a little extra to satisfy itself in the sideshows of exotic carnival and vaudeville acts called the Pay Streak.

The longest section of the Pay Streak extended north from the exposition's landing on Lake Union's Portage Bay (seen here during A-Y-P's New England Day) ...

to beyond the old Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad overpass -- now a surviving feature of the Burke-Gilman Trail as it makes its way through the university campus.

Souvenir and confection booths lined the strip's center. To either side were an assortment of sensations and oddities like ...

The Alaska Theater of Sensations ...

the Streets of Cairo ...

Prince Albert, The Educated Horse ...

and the Fairy Gorge Tickler, a titillating gravity-powered ride. However, the Pay Streak's most talked-about attraction was not a carny ride ...

but a quasi-anthropological exhibit of the Filipino group, the Igorrotes.

The Igorrote sideshow resembled a jungle compound. For those who answered the call of the barker -- and most fairgoers did ...

inside the loinclothed warriors performed a variety of dances. In the beginning, the scant loincloths got more attention than the ritual dances. So much so ...

that Expo officials were moved to construct a special committee of distinguished moralists, including the lanky Presbyterian Rev. Mark Mathews (left foreground) and the stocky Judge Thomas Burke (right foreground) -- to pass on the ultimate goodness of the natives' g-strings.

To the anthropological credit of the judges -- and to the credit of the spreadsheet of the Pay Streak -- moralists decided the loincloths were proper for the Igorrotes ...

who later expressed their thanks by parading for the Seattle Spirit.

The cosmopolitan range of the A-Y-P also included Eskimos from Siberia,

exotic Asian tea houses,

circular structure resembling -- roughly -- Shakespeare’s Globe Theater where the Battle of Gettysburg was regularly reinacted,

and strange architecture like the Upside Down House,

and the Forestry Building. As far as unhewed timber could manage it, the fair's Forestry Building repeated with 124 raw logs the classical lines of the exposition. The 80 logs on the outside were more than five feet thick and 50 feet high. The Forestry Building was the fair's "Temple to Timber."

The Forestry Building featured a 19-foot-thick stump with a winding staircase to a stage built on its top.

Inside, a lumber sideshow included a pair of giant dice, six feet thick, cut from a single block and captioned "the kind of dice we roll in Washington."

Also on show at the rear of this rustic exhibit hall was the "Big Stick," an immense single piece of milled timber, about 156 feet long.

The Forestry Building was one of the Exposition structures which was kept after the fair, and served for a few years as the Washington State Museum. In the end it provided nourishment to a growing family of wood-chewing beetles before it was razed in 1931. Eventually, the Husky Union Building -- HUB for short -- was constructed on the site.

Most of the fair's Beaux Arts beauties were razed soon after the A-Y-P closed its gates. They were nearly all impractical for regular school use. More importantly, they were made of temporary plaster castings which, although easy to mold and construct were also quick to dim and wear away.

The principal long-term A-Y-P survivors were made of brick. The A-Y-P Auditorium, renamed Meany Hall, continued as a venue for school concerts and convocations until the earthquake of 1965 closed it.

The Imogen Cunningham Women's Center, the fair's Woman's Building, is another rare surviving remnant of the fair. It was made from neither stone nor plaster, but from wood.

Throughout its run, the turnstiles of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition rolled so often that the fair's promoters could truthfully add to their pledge of opening on time a second promise: that the A-Y-P would pay for itself. And it did. More than 3.7 million people attended, and the organizers realize a profit of $14,488. The profit was donated to the Anti-Tuberculosis League and to the Seaman's Institute.

Just as important, the A-Y-P Exposition returned to Seattle some of the nationwide recognition it had received a decade earlier during the run of the Gold Rush it celebrated.

The brick Fine Arts Building at the north end of the Pay Streak continues to serve the university's Department of Architecture.

This is a Slideshow on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington's first World's Fair, which opened on June 1, 1909, and closed on October 16, 1909. More than three million people visited the fair, which took place in Seattle on the University of Washington campus. Written and Curated by Paul Dorpat, with Chris Goodman. Presented by Safeco.

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