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The Exposition: A Contemporary Report on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition by Mateel Howe (1909)
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This is a contemporary report on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington's first world's fair. The exposition took place between June 1 and October 16, 1909, drawing more than three million people. Visitors came from around the state, the nation, and the world to view hundreds of educational exhibits, stroll the lushly manicured grounds, and be entertained on the Pay Streak midway, while Seattle promoted itself as a gateway to the rich resources of Alaska, the Yukon, and Asia. Mateel Howe was sent to the exposition from her home in Portland to report on its opening week by the newspaper The Independent. This is a reprint of her report published as "The Exposition," The Independent, June 24, 1909, p. 1368.
The Exposition by Mateel Howe
I HAVE seen six expositions, all told, and have got so tired and weary at all of them that the very thought of an exposition, as a rule, brings on a headache, backache, footache, eyeache, and a bad humor generally. But when I arrived in Seattle on the afternoon prior to opening day I, contrary to all expectations, was in a very good humor and expecting to have a very good time. Half a dozen letters preceded me and heralded my arrival to the management of the hotel where I had elected to stay, and I had been assured from the owner of the hotel -- who is also president of the Exposition -- down to the assistant clerk or something, that I should be most carefully looked after and given special attention. When I announced that I intended to visit the fair, everybody I knew or even met casually knew somebody who had a position of trust in the hotel, and they, one and all, insisted on writing to their influential friends about me. As a consequence and result of all their combined labors I was given a small back room with bright cerise walls and red carpets, situated almost on top of a huge steam shovel that operated all night long and made sleep, like politics, an iridescent dream. So my first view and impressions of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition were very much colored and distorted by that clanging, shrieking monster, and it was not till after several days of rest and quiet that I could forget my troubles and see things as they were -- and are.
To me all expositions look more or less alike on the outside, differing chiefly in point of size and beauty. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- A-Y-P for short -- belongs away down the list in point of size but away up the list in point of beauty. Taken as a whole the general effect is beautiful. The buildings, of a deep creamy restful tint, are arranged in a circle around the Grand Central Court -- what would an exposition do without a Grand Central Court ?
The Government Building is at the head of this court, and the view from there is very lovely. On all sides of the buildings and the grounds and directly in front is a series of cascades, ending in a circular basin with a geyser fountain. From here are gardens making an outlook to the foot of the grounds, where lies the beautiful timber-bordered Lake Washington. In the distance, many miles away but seeming very, very near, is the massive snow-covered Mt. Rainier. This makes a vista worth while looking at, and the fact there is always a group looking shows that others agree with me. Of course, at night the cascades are flooded with colored electric lights -- just as at all fairs. Even when there is a glorious shining moon to silver the waters, the blue, green and red lights still flash off and on at intervals and put the moon quite to shame with their gaudiness. But falling and splashing waters are always pretty, even when they are reddened and greened and blued, and so the cascades are always good to see. The largest buildings border this court and the others fall in behind.
The architecture is universally good and the general effect is very pretty. Pretty seems the right word to describe the fair. It seems right to apply the word "pretty" just as at St. Louis the word "stupendous" seemed best. It is a pretty little fair -- perhaps even a beautiful little fair. Certainly, it is very, very pretty.
The Lewis and Clark Fair, at Portland four years ago, was not so large as the A-Y-P nor quite so pretty. The Pan-American Exposition was larger than the one here, but not half so pretty. It seems absurd to even compare this with the World's Fair at St. Louis, and yet as others do so shall I. But that at St. Louis was a world's fair, and all the civilized and semi-civilized world was represented. It was so huge that one could not see it all in a month, even if he went to work conscientiously to sight-see and kept at it. The Agricultural Building there could almost have held all the buildings of the Seattle Fair. There, every State had a magnificent building as well as the foreign countries. Here, Japan and Canada are the only foreign countries represented, and but six States have buildings. There, one took a trolley to get from one part of the grounds to another. Here, one walks or takes a wheeled chair. There is nothing overwhelming in the least about this Exposition. But it does not represent the world or even the United States, but just a part of the great Northwest. Considering what it does represent it is in every way creditable. But it should not be compared with the fair in St. Louis any more than a county fair should be compared to it. And yet, since we have compared, I must say I think this fair prettier, even, than the huge one at St. Louis. Its grounds make it so.
Out West, when they build fairs, the do not go to the edge of the city and find a few vacant lots, tear down numerous buildings and erect a fair as in the East. They go out in the timber and cut down trees and erect their fairs in the cleared spaces. The trees still crowd the cities of the Northwest, and while there are no vast forests just adjacent, there are trees everywhere, and every uncultivated spot is covered with the forest monarchs. So when Seattle built her fair there were trees to cut down and growing things to clear away. But wherever a tree was wanted it was left. Wherever the architect, and he was a good architect, wanted a background of massive firs, he left them there. In the grounds he wisely left much of the natural shrubbery and tender young trees and bushes. Moreover, this is a fresh, green country where it rains much, and the foliage and grass and flowers reach a marvelous perfection. There is room here, too, lots of room, so the buildings are not crowded together, and nearly all of them are set in beautiful lawns. There are flowers everywhere that only the West, outside of the tropics, could furnish. I said the fair was pretty. Perhaps I should say beautiful. Certainly the grounds and surroundings are beautiful, and one cannot but grow enthusiastic over them. The flowers are not in set beds or formal gardens, but scattered everywhere. They are just beginning to bloom now, and unfortunately the pictures do not show them as they should. Unlike other fairs, the grounds are not cheapened by numerous and hideous imitation statues and plaster of Paris cupids and dryads. There is absolutely none of this and the relief is great.
No fair ever had a lovelier setting than this one. Portland's, too, had a beautiful location, and the trees and flowers were its chief charm. The Exposition is about twice the size of the Lewis and Clark Fair, and the buildings are of a much better style of architecture. In St. Louis one carried away an impression of massiveness; in Buffalo one remembered chiefly the illumination; here the principal charm and lasting impression is of the beauty of the surroundings and of the trees and natural gifts that make the Northwest so fascinating.
At night the charm of the fair is lost. There is no Niagara near to furnish unlimited power for illumination and make a fairyland of it as at Buffalo. It is illuminated, to be sure, and the buildings outlined with lights, but that feature cannot be compared to Buffalo's any more than the grounds at Buffalo can be compared to those here.
I am dwelling chiefly on outside charms, because there is not much to be seen inside the buildings. It is early, of course, and some of the exhibits are not in place, but it is not too early to judge of what they will be. The Government Building is quite finished and is interesting and instructive to all those who have never seen a government building. But having seen one you have seen them all, and I have seen the models of ships and of lighthouses, and pictures of the Yellowstone, army uniforms, historic flags and Filipino villages in miniature very often. I had the advantage of seeing the fair with a friend who was new to fairs and she found much to interest her in this building, especially in the old bills and legal documents. I think a small fair fails chiefly with its exhibits. At St. Louis there was so much to see.
The foreign governments sent their most wonderful and beautiful treasures and built models of historic palaces to show them in. Here practically the only foreign exhibits are very mediocre displays by very small shopkeepers, who make a business of following fairs. Japan, for all her war talk, has the one foreign building excepting Canada's, tho it is not yet open. It is a very interesting building, however, and the Japanese displays are nearly always sure to be good. Japan had by far the finest exhibit at St. Louis of any country represented there. The Filipinos have a small, but interesting, building. Hawaii, too, has a building, but none of the exhibits are yet in place. The Alaskan Building is large and the exhibits interesting if one cares for Indian baskets, curios and pictures of scenery. The art gallery, tho small, is excellent. This is probably the second best feature of the Exposition. No exposition need be ashamed of the collection shown here. The pictures are few but of the highest quality. Botticelli, Romney, Lely, Rembrandt, Turner, Millet, Bernet, Lorraine and Van Dyke are names found on one page of the catalog. There is an excellent showing of the famous Barbizon school, and others from Americans past and present.
The Art Gallery is one of the permanent buildings that will be given to the University of Washington as soon as the fair is ended. The university, by the way, originated and started the idea of the A-Y-P, and fortunately will profit by the energy. The University is adjacent to the fair and all the fair grounds will be part of the university grounds after September. Another building that will go to the university is the Forestry Building. This is probably the most interesting building on the grounds to Eastern visitors. It is built entirely inside and out of massive logs in their natural state, and is not only impressive and different but beautiful. It will surely make going to school more pleasant, for it seems like a large club house where one would naturally have a good time. This Forestry Building is not unique with the A-Y-P, however, for they had one in Portland at the Lewis and Clark Fair, and still keep it in their midst to show admiring visitors from back East, where fir trees don't climb so far heavenward and grow so big that apple trees and maple seem like bushes in comparison.
The Forestry Building, even on opening day, was completely finished and ready, as were most of the buildings. This fair was not postponed one day, and it was wonderful to me how complete everything was. The grounds were in perfect readiness and there was no crudeness of preparation apparent. The Midway, called the Pay Streak here, was probably less ready than any other part of the grounds.
I fear old age has overtaken me at last, for I am unable to get up any enthusiasm whatever for Midways, Pikes or Pay Streaks, or whatever they may be called. The Eskimo Village and the Tickler, the House Upside Down and the Magic Maze have long since ceased to appeal to my sense of humor. No longer does it cause me any beautiful creepy thrills to whirl madly around dark corners on scenic railways and suddenly plunge downward a few hundred feet. The "Spielers" used to amuse me very much, but either it is the afore-mentioned "old age," which has prejudiced me, or the shows have chosen very mediocre performers to cry their wares. Aside from the Igorrote Village the Pay Streak is not what one might expect, nor is it to be compared to any of those in the Eastern expositions. Its chief lack is a first class cafe.
My ideas of a good time at an exposition is to take dinner out of doors in the evening in an unique and artistic cafe where there are crowds of people and good things to eat, good music and singers. One gets so tired and hot and "achy" doing a fair, that in my opinion it is an actual duty of the management to see that there is at least one absolutely first class and attractive cafe where one can rest and eat and forget one's weariness. I remember a lovely little cafe in Buffalo, and there were many in St. Louis, to add to the joy of things. The New York Building, always the center of hospitality, has a pleasant restaurant attached, but this is not open to the general public.
But as one can see the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in two or three days at the most, not many meals are wanted, and there are plenty of good hotels and cafes down town. There are hotels in profusion down town, on the hills and out near the grounds. I tried one down town with disastrous results, and I should advise any one coming to see the fair to try an hotel up on the hills or out on the grounds. When inquiring for accommodations be sure to ask about excavating. Seattle, looking forward a hundred years or so and getting ready for the population she expects to have then, is leveling hills, tearing down streets and opening up others.
This is all very pleasant for the coming generations, but a bit hard on weary fair visitors unless they are used to excavating and have a fondness for steam shovels. If not, I strongly advise an hotel rather far out! I stayed at one on a hill about eight blocks from down town, and not the least pleasant part of my visit has been the glorious view of the glorious Puget Sound and of the sunsets, that each evening put to shame even the wonderful Turner out in the Art Gallery.
In the East they often speak of Roosevelt's luck. Out West we talk of Seattle's luck. So every one expects Seattle's first exposition to be a great success before the summer is over. It opened gloriously with most perfect weather. Several regiments of the army were here, most of the Pacific Squadron and two Japanese warships, to help in the opening. One of the interesting sights of the exposition has been the slant-eyed sailors wandering around the grounds hand in hand, and having such a good time that they made even the weariest feel better.
I have said all expositions are alike, but the A-Y-P is unique in one particular. It does not represent anything past, but stands for the Alaska and Pacific of today and of the future. It does not commemorate anything that has been done but things that are expected to be done. This makes a step forward in expositions and Seattle should be proud to be the pioneer. She has built a fair in every way creditable. It is a pretty little fair, certainly, and the country about, the mountains, the ocean and the mystery- brooding forests make it even a beautiful little fair. Nature has been kind to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition as she has been kind to Seattle. A visitor, especially one from the East, will never forget the fair here, and chiefly because of the beautiful setting it rests in SEATTLE, WASH.
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Cascades and Court of Honor, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909
Photo by Frank Nowell, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. PH Coll. 727.86, Image No. AYP1016)
Rainier Vista, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. PH Coll. 777 Oakes 153, Image No. AYP869)
Forestry Building (1909, destroyed 1931), Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909
Photo by Frank Nowell, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. Nowell x2563, Image No. AYP038)
Interior, Forestry Building, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909
Photo by Frank Nowell, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. Nowell x1147, Image No. AYP655)