BETCHA CAN’T NAME the last World’s Fair held in North America. Thirty-five years ago, it was Expo ’86 in Vancouver, B.C. Today, as technology brings nearly every aspect of the planet to our fingertips, eyeballs and eardrums, the appeal of another in-person, all-in-one extravaganza on this continent seems elusive.
Even so, we in Seattle revere our pair of World’s Fairs past. They assembled multitudes in real time and tangible space, and left enduring legacies and ambience.
The six-month 1962 fair drew nearly 10 million and gave us the well-used Seattle Center. Touchstones included the Space Needle, International Fountain, Pacific Science Center and now-named Climate Pledge Arena (I’ll always call it the Coliseum).
Less known today was the direct predecessor, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. It yielded the spectacular University of Washington promenade known as Rainier Vista, while fostering a steadfast locus of learning. In four-and-a-half months, 3.7 million AYPE visitors encountered an endless array of cultural and commercial offerings, both high and low of brow.
This and other fairs constituted “the internet of the early 20th century,” contends Magnolia’s Dan Kerlee, a leading AYPE researcher. “You could come to the A-Y-P and ‘click on’ most anything you wanted.”
Among myriad examples is the dominant hall in our “Then” photo. Promoting “the greatest timber belt in the world,” the Chehalis County Building faced southeast near UW’s northeast corner.
Above the columns of this temporary structure, a 3D frieze of a log trailer, locomotive, mill and other figures depicted what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called the “pretty legend of travels of the tree from the forest to the building,” along with the pursuits of livestock, dairy and farming.
This building would give the county (six years later renamed for Grays Harbor) worldwide recognition “in capital letters with indelible ink,” predicted its executive, H.D. Chapman. He signaled hopes for a harbor-based “metropolis” to export timber that he labeled “the finest on God’s footstool.”
Such AYPE zeal also pervaded three other expositions of the era: in Portland in 1905, and in San Francisco and San Diego in 1915. The book “Boosting a New West” (Washington State University Press, 2020) says the coastal fairs sought to outstrip the backwoods imagery of dime novels and “Wild West” shows to lure new settlers and investments.
Will we ever again see such a one-off, global smorgasbord?
An AYPE ad from the book whets my yearning for common physical ground:
You ought to see Seattle,
And the Fair she plans on giving;
Twill put new notions in your head,
And make life worth the living.