HistoryLink.org provides commentary on the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the University of Washington campus.
A century ago, on June 1, 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opened on the University of Washington campus. Over the next 4 1/2 months, approximately 3.7 million people passed through the gates of Washington’s first world’s fair to explore exhibition buildings, ponder exhibits from around the world, enjoy rides and entertainments on the Pay Streak midway, and stroll through grounds that had been carefully designed to highlight the region’s natural scenic beauty. Seattle basked in the spotlight as visitors spread the word about this wonderful fair far and wide.
Seattle first rose to national prominence in 1897 as the “gateway to Alaska,” following the discovery of gold in the Klondike. The city was still rough around the edges when thousands of fortune seekers made their way here to buy provisions for the trip north. Thanks to the Gold Rush and expanding Asian trade, Seattle prospered. Its population nearly doubled in three years, reaching 80,000 in 1900, and tripled over the following decade.
In 1906, local civic leaders began planning a world’s fair that would showcase the region’s importance on the world stage, emphasizing its ties to Alaska, the Yukon, and countries across the Pacific. Participation was sought and secured from every county in Washington. Several states and territories joined in, as did many of the countries from what we now call the Pacific Rim. The centerpiece of the fair would be a massive U.S. Government building, filled with treasures from the Smithsonian. Businesses and civic boosters snapped up A-Y-P stock, and the governments of Washington and the United States appropriated funding.
The following year was a milestone in Seattle’s development. The city doubled its land area by annexing West Seattle, Ballard, South Park, Southeast Seattle, and Columbia City, which at the time were separate municipalities, as well as Ravenna Park and vicinity and unincorporated southeast neighborhoods. Population continued to surge. And on June 1, ground was broken for the A-Y-P.
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Planning and construction took two years. The Olmsted Brothers firm, having designed the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, was an obvious choice for designing the exposition grounds. John C. Olmsted had also prepared a park plan for Seattle in 1903, as well as a design for the university campus the following year.
Close to 80,000 people walked through the gates on Opening Day. Most came on streetcars, which arrived that morning at the rate of almost one every 30 seconds. At the opening ceremonies, railroad magnate James J. Hill gave the keynote address, after which President William Howard Taft sent a signal via telegraph from the East Room of the White House ceremonially opening the fair. Cannons roared, a ceremonial gong rang out, and a gigantic flag unfurled in front of the audience. The fair had begun.
There was so much to see. Scores of buildings housed an almost infinite variety of exhibits. Many fairgoers headed to the U. S. Government Building to see Thomas Jefferson’s desk, where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Some went to the Agriculture Building to enjoy free samples of fruits and vegetables from around the state. Others lined up at the Manufactures Building to marvel at commercial products and innovations. The monolithic Forestry Building enticed more than a few, as did the California Building, which housed an elephant made of walnuts.
The Pay Streak was the A-Y-P Exposition’s entertainment area. It offered (for a price) a dizzying array of carnival rides, quasi-educational exhibits, souvenirs, and refreshments. It was a magnet for fairgoers of all ages. From the Fairy Gorge Tickler to the Haunted Swing, from Igorrotes (members of a Filipino tribe) to Eskimos, from Billikens to baby incubators, the Pay Streak had it all. Check it out:
During the fair’s run, Special Days were held to honor organizations, professions, and ethnic communities, as well as visitors from various cities, counties, and states. Trainloads of visitors traveled to Seattle to take part, en masse, with friends and cohorts, on such days as Tacoma Day, Norway Day, Dixie Day, Flag Day, and Hoo-Hoo Day. Even folks named Smith had their own day to join together in fun.
Fairgoers also witnessed the unveiling of an astonishing “wireless telephone,” the finale of a transcontinental auto race, a gathering of suffragists, a typhoid outbreak, and a visit by President Taft. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition ended on October 16, 1909. It was the first World’s Fair to make a profit, and elements of its physical design remain a legacy today on the UW campus. The A-Y-P was so successful that it led to the creation Seattle’s second World’s Fair in 1962 — Century 21.
Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker are authors of the book, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington’s First World’s Fair. The book is a 184-page, hard-cover, full color history of the A-Y-P. It is being published May 22 and may be ordered at HistoryLink.org.