The Seattle World’s Fair ran for six months 60 years ago. By most assessments the Century 21 Exposition (its official name) was a grand success: nearly 10 million visitors, 24 nations participating and showing a profit.
The fair left behind buildings still in use, from the redone Climate Pledge Arena and monorail to the iconic Space Needle. It was Seattle’s coming-out party as a big city.
Although billed as relentlessly forward-looking and science oriented, it was an unreliable lodestar.
The United States indeed landed men on the moon by the end of the decade. But monorails didn’t proliferate in cities. The digital revolution was yet to come — no mention of personal computers or cellphones. Bill Gates and Paul Allen were children. Jeff Bezos wasn’t born until 1964. The study of human-caused climate change was a scientific backwater.
Seattle was remarkable in being Boeing’s headquarters. The jet-powered 707, which made air travel safer and faster than ever before, was built in Renton. The company’s employment hit 100,000 in the late 1950s, most of it in Washington, although with big ups and downs.
Boeing also built B-52 bombers in Seattle and elsewhere, and sought other defense business (including the new Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile) as the Cold War continued.
Otherwise, the home of the Century 21 Exposition was a mid-20th century city, with a strong middle class and the 1950s still lingering.
Banks were all locally owned. For example, Seattle First National Bank was headquartered in the Dexter Horton Building at Second Avenue and Cherry. Millions of Americans had living memory of the Great Depression, caused in part by a rickety, unregulated banking system. The Glass-Steagall Act guardrails were firmly in place.
Retail was local, too: Beloved department store Frederick & Nelson, along with The Bon Marché, were housed in ornate downtown temples of commerce. Frederick’s had the Paul Bunyan Room with a soda fountain and the fancy Tea Room upstairs. Although Northgate Shopping Mall opened in 1950, downtown Seattle was the city’s retailing center. Nordstrom’s was a shoe store; apparel didn’t join the inventory until the purchase of Best’s Apparel in 1963.
The city streets were spotless. Vagrancy laws and forced institutionalization of those struggling with mental illness meant fewer people living on the street. Many without shelter found accommodations in single-room-occupancy hotels, until the Ozark Hotel fire, set by an arsonist, killed 20 in 1970, and more stringent fire codes spelled the end of these low-income housing establishments.
Coffee was simple joe.
Intercity passenger trains were still relatively abundant in 1962, although the jet airliner and interstate highways were siphoning off travelers. All the trains were handled by private railroads and were the pride of each company.
Seattle was served by the Great Northern’s Empire Builder and Western Star, and the Northern Pacific’s Mainstreeter and North Coast Limited — all going to Chicago where they connected with a still-expansive national rail network. Union Pacific operated passenger trains north from Portland (along with Great Northern and Northern Pacific). Great Northern’s Internationals connected Seattle to Vancouver, B.C.
But as a foreshadowing, the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha, operating on the last of the transcontinental railroads to reach Seattle and Tacoma, was discontinued in 1961.
Freeways were new. The massive bridge carrying Interstate 5 over the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened in December 1962. I-5 cut a massive swath through the city.
Freight continued to be big business for the railroads, as attested by tangles of tracks around South Lake Union and along the central waterfront. The future Sodo was topped by a massive Sears building — the future Starbucks headquarters. The Kingdome wasn’t opened until 1976.
The marine industries were so important that The Seattle Times (an afternoon newspaper then, with the competing Seattle Post-Intelligencer delivered in the morning) had a page entitled Maritime News From Around the World.
The big news in 1962 was the rise of container use. In the past, shipping was “break bulk cargo” handled manually by longshore workers. In 1962, the Port of Seattle unveiled a plan to build terminals to handle containers — pioneered by the SeaLand company. Longshore unions fought the job-killing containers but eventually settled for generous buyouts.
The Navy docked supply ships at piers 90 and 91 in Smith Cove. Off-duty sailors hiked up a stairway to the Magnolia Bridge where they could catch a bus downtown or hitch a ride from a patriotic Magnolia resident headed that way.
It was early in the civil rights movement and people of color had fewer job opportunities. The same was true of women who were also paid less than men. Redlining confined Black residents to the Central District.
The year 1962 offers an interesting thought exercise.
Someone alive in 1902 wouldn’t have felt too out of place when the fair happened. Telephones, typewriters, trains and telegrams were more advanced, sure. The 707 was a logical extension of the Wright brothers’ powered flight in 1903.
But fast-forward to 2022. Our time traveler would be at sea with iPhones, email, social media, rich folks traveling into low-Earth orbit and “woke” politics. That the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 (President John F. Kennedy canceled his visit to the fair, pleading a cold, when he was secretly dealing with the Cuban missile crisis). That 9/11 happened. And that many Americans mistrust science.
COVID-19 would be an echo of the 1918 Spanish flu.
The Century 21 Exposition foresaw a new century that arrived very differently than it expected. But it left gifts such as the Space Needle that endure. And wonderful memories.
“The Seattle of my youth was an Eden,” recalled Doug Glant, the retired CEO of Glant Pacific Companies and a 79-year Seattleite. Now, he feels “that I have been thrown out of by the woke Democrats who took it over.”
“Of course, paradises don’t last,” the unapologetic and rare local conservative mused. “I’m just a foolish romantic clinging to the vanished American virtues of common sense, fiscal probity, chivalry, integrity, humility and good manners. But, just as Bogie and Ingrid Bergman would ‘always have Paris,’ I will always ‘have’ the Seattle of the wonderful era of Truman and Eisenhower.”
And the Seattle World’s Fair.