Looking Back: 1901 Pan-American Exposition

September 3, 2021   -  

The 1901 World's Fair, known as the Pan-American Exposition, was held in Buffalo, N.Y., not far from our laboratory. The Exposition included many extensive exhibits as well as a midway with rides, shows and other curiosities. The exhibits showcased the latest advancements in science and technology, most notably electricity.

The Rainbow City

A major feature was electric lighting that utilized hydroelectric power generated in nearby Niagara Falls and transmitted to the fairgrounds. Many of the Exposition buildings, including the prominent Electric Tower, were covered in light bulbs, creating a beautiful and unprecedented sight. The Exposition was sometimes called "The Rainbow City" because of the way strings of lights of various colors covered the many buildings.

Power from the rush of water at Niagara Falls first started generating electricity some 16 years prior to the Pan-American Exposition. Yet it would not be until 1895 that it became possible to harness this electricity on a grand scale and send it the 22 miles to Buffalo in a form that could be used to burn lights and move streetcars and power other operations.

The city of Buffalo was already a pioneer in the use of electricity, it was the first city utilizing electric street lights and it had an electric streetcar system. In fact, it was nicknamed the "City of Light" at the time.

The Electic Tower

That the electricity produced at Niagara Falls could, for the first time, travel to Buffalo was primarily owed to the genius of engineer Nikola Tesla. For it was Tesla who developed the plans on which generators produce alternating current (AC) electricity, a form that allows for electricity to travel great distances and be modulated into different power voltages. Alternating current powered the lights of the "Rainbow City," which included almost a quarter-million colored 8-watt bulbs.

A central focus was the massive Electric Tower, which measured 410 feet tall and acted as a great light beacon. In addition to showcasing electricity, other technologies newly invented at the time, such as incubators for infants and X-ray machines, were on display along with many types of machinery.

The Expo Stadium

Other attractions at the Expo included diverse offerings in the stadium (baseball games, sham battles, fireworks displays, military drills) and 296 concessions along the midway. There, the "Scenic Railway" carried attendees to attractions like "Trip to the Moon," "Beautiful Orient," "Dream Land" and "Venice in America." There were many live shows and demonstrations.

The 350-acre exhibition's grand design suggested a Roman Forum pattern. Stretching from the massive Electric Tower, a system of lagoons and interconnecting canals encircled the exhibit area. Ornate bridges, archways, plazas, esplanades, fountains, stadiums, and grand gateways were included. A thousand Lombardy poplars and hundreds of monumental cedar trees lined the walkways. Rose gardens, flower beds, and pergolas abounded.

More than 800 pieces of statuary adorned buildings and malls. All buildings were large, very ornate and colorful, but temporary, all composed of plaster except for one. They were demolished after the exhibition closed, except the New York State building, which was composed of marble and still stands today as the Museum of History.

President McKinley's Assassination

The Pan-American Exposition turned tragic when it became the location of President McKinley's assassination. On Sept. 6, 1901, while in a receiving line at the Exposition's Temple of Music, President McKinley was shot twice by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

McKinley was taken to the Exposition's hospital where he was operated on and then taken to a local residence to recover. His condition appeared to improve, but McKinley eventually died on Sept. 14 due to infection and gangrene from the gunshot wounds. Theodore Roosevelt has sworn in as president in Buffalo shortly after.

Today you can walk the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition and stroll the esplanade, though you will have to imagine what it was like for you will be walking down residential streets filled with upscale homes and mansions. The colorful buildings in the "Rainbow City" are gone except for the New York State building.

There is a boulder serving as a marker at the spot McKinley was shot in the Temple of Music. On the Niagara River, an old warehouse that once contained transformers remains; it was part of Tesla's system route relaying the electric power from Niagara Falls to the exhibition. There is also a hint of the Pan-American Exposition in downtown Buffalo: the iconic Electric Building is patterned after the exhibition's Electric Tower's design.

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