“Perhaps the candid Nebraskan would tell you in a moment of frank contriteness that the prime object of this exposition was to boom Omaha.”  That was what one reporter said about the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898.

All very true.  It did advertise Omaha to the world, but it also put the entire West on display.

In 1895, businessman Gurdon Wattles and a group of his Omaha compatiots, voted to have an exposition showing the development of the West from the Mississippi to the West Coast.  Several sites were nominated for the exposition but the one eventually winning later became what is now known as Kountze Park, after banker Herman Kountze who donated the land.
The Arch of States, built in the classical Greco-Roman style, was the entrance to the Expo. Made of wood, and covered with a new construction material called staff which was cheap and pliable, all the buildings  were temporary structures featuring reproductions of Greek and Roman temples and European architecture.  Kimball and C. Howard Walker were co-architects-in-chief for the event, with sculptor Richard Bock designing many of the buildings.  Upon completion, the Expo encompassed 180 acres in northern Omaha and included 21 buildings featuring architectural types from around the world, all encircling a 2,000-foot lake.  When looking at the model of the Expo, it seems a shame and a definite waste of time, money, and effort, to construct all that and then simply 
tear it down.   
 
The Expo ran from June 1 to November 1, and during those four months,  more than 2.6 million people went through the exhibits and displays, a remarkable number for that era, when travel was still rather limited.  Among the events and features:

The opening of the Burlington-Northern Station in downtown Omaha.

“Cody Day” on August 31, when Buffalo Bill, a Nebraska native, brought his Wild West Show back to town.  The show was set up in Omaha Driving Park, where it had originated.

“President’s Day” on October 12.  Invited by Gurdon Wattles, President William McKinley was the guest speaker, focusing on the importance of non-isolationism.

William Jennings Bryan, another Nebraska native, was also a guest.

During the time of the Expo, the US Post Office issued nine postage stamps, each depicting a Western scene.  These have become known as the Trans-Mississippi Issue and a complete unused set is worth $5000.  They are considered some of the finest stamps produced by the US.

The Indian Congress, from August 4 to October 31, was held at the same time.  It was the largest gathering of Native American tribes of its kind with over 500 members of 35 tribes appearing, including Apache chief Geronimo, who was a prisoner at Fort Sill during that time.  Funded by a bill lobbied by members of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition committee, and also monies from the Smithsonian Institute, the Congress was managed by James Mooney and Captain William Mercer of the 8th US Infantry under the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  One of the main events was the Ghost Dance, which came under criticism because of the US Army attacking dancers at Wounded Knee.  Chief Big Foot’s Ghost Dance shirt was  part of another display. 

The Year after the Expo, it was decided to have another, which became the Great American Expo in 1899.

During the Expo’s Centennial celebration in 1998, a monument was set up in Kountze Park.


6 comments

  1. Mary Ricksen // June 25, 2012 at 6:29 PM  

    Kinda like a big fair. I'da gone for sure. It probably was a big draw at the time.Too bad they couldn't keep the structures. What the heck is staff, have to look it up!

  2. Mary Marvella // June 25, 2012 at 9:27 PM  

    An interesting post! Those expos were cool beyond belief. I went to the one in '67.

  3. Toni V.S. // June 25, 2012 at 10:22 PM  

    Was that 1867, MM? :)

  4. Beth Trissel // June 26, 2012 at 8:43 AM  

    Wow, what a lot of history I didn't know. Fascinating, thanks!

  5. Josie // June 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM  

    Really interesting, Toni. I learned so much.

  6. Patrice // June 27, 2012 at 10:21 PM  

    Holy cow - I did't know this stuff either. Nice information.