President Richard M. Nixon presides over the opening of Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair, on May 4, 1974.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/20/2014
  • Essay 5133

On May 4, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) presides over the opening of Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair. Addressing a crowd of 85,000 -- including a few hecklers -- Nixon says he is most impressed "that the idea did not come from Washington D.C., but from Washington state" ("Complete Text"). As he formally declares Expo '74 open, 50,000 balloons are released into the sky. Spokane, with a population of about 170,000, is the smallest city ever to host a world's fair. Spokane organizers conceived of the fair as a way to revamp the city's railroad-choked riverfront and restore public access to the spectacular Spokane Falls of the Spokane River. Expo '74's theme is the environment and many of the 10 international pavilions are about ecological problems and solutions. Spokane's morning daily newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, declares in a headline that "Opening Day Goes Like Clockwork" (Young). The reviews from the national and international press are mostly positive. Expo '74 will run until November 3, 1974, and will attract almost 5.2 million visitors. The fair's site will eventually be transformed into Riverfront Park, the city's downtown park showcase.  

Spokane Rising, Nixon Falling

When President Richard M. Nixon announced months earlier that he would personally open Expo '74, King Cole (1922-2010) the fair's head, called it validation for an "underdog" world's fair (Youngs, p. 374). However by opening day, Nixon's popularity was at an all-time low and he was thoroughly embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Just a few days before the opening, the White House had released partial transcripts of the tapes that would soon undo his presidency.

A few hecklers were scattered through the huge crowd. Many more protesters were gathered outside the gates, including a contingent of Yippies, the Youth International Party. The Yippies were holding a summer encampment a few miles down the river at Spokane's People's Park -- a kind of counter-Expo -- and they had staged an anti-Nixon rally earlier that day at Spokane's federal building. At some point during the rally, someone suggested that the crowd of about 200 march down to the Expo gates.

They surged down to the Expo '74 site and shouted "Jail to the Chief" (Youngs, p. 394). Meanwhile, somebody unfurled a banner saying, "See You Later, Watergater" (Youngs, p. 394). A few protesters, including Spokane Yippie leader Rik Smith, gathered near Nixon's limousine as the president was making his exit from Expo '74. Smith said Nixon wore "a disgusted look" as the crowd began "yelling at him and flipping him off" (Youngs, p. 395). Then Nixon's motorcade rolled off and the protesters dispersed.

The Greatest Day

Inside the gates, the momentous day was proceeding with no disruptions, although even guest of honor Danny Kaye (1911-1987), the actor-comedian, privately confided that he "didn't want to clap for that guy [Nixon]" (Youngs, p. 389). The opening ceremonies were the culmination of four years of intense work and worry for Spokane and the Expo leaders. Some of the executives were fresh from all-night work parties, in which they helped plant flowerbeds. However, the grounds and pavilions were in showcase condition when May 4 dawned with blue skies and ideal spring weather. Crowds gathered as early as 8 a.m. By the time the ceremony began several hours later, the crowd had grown so large that some of the dignitaries had difficulty making their way to the stage.

The ceremony began with a floating procession of decorated barges, representing each of the 10 nations at Expo '74. Quinault Indians in canoes accompanied the barges down a placid branch of the Spokane River. A 1,000-voice chorus, made up largely of local students, sang, "What the World Needs Now Is Love." Trout -- 1,974 in total -- were released into the river, symbolic of the river's recent reclamation. It was also symbolic of the fair's official theme, "Celebrating Tomorrow's Fresh New Environment" ("Official Program").

Emcee Marvin Miller (1913-1985), a Hollywood actor and well-known radio voice, introduced Spokane's mayor David H. Rodgers (b. 1923) and fair president Cole. Then fair general manager Petr Spurney (b. 1935) introduced Danny Kaye, calling him the "Good Will Ambassador to our greatest natural resource, the children of the world" (Youngs. p. 389).

Man and Nature One

Then Kaye stepped to the podium to read the official Credo of Expo, which began with the words, "We believe that the universe is a grand design in which man and nature are one" (Bowers, p. 13). The credo was replete with stirring environmental themes, including, "That man, in his growing wisdom, will renounce the age-old boast of conquering nature, lest nature conquer man" (Bowers, p. 13). Kaye ended the credo with this declaration: "That from this city of Spokane, there goes forth today to the world, this message, that the time of great environmental awakening is at hand" (Bowers, p. 14).

A thousand homing pigeons flapped into the air. Miller then introduced U.S. Representative Tom Foley (1929-2013) from Spokane and Washington's Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). Then Evans introduced Nixon to "a huge rolling roar of cheers and whistles," along with a few catcalls (Youngs, p. 391).

Nixon spoke about "cleaning up the air and water," and leaving a legacy of parks, in order to make "our cities and our towns and our countryside more beautiful for our children and those that follow us" ("Complete Text").

"The environment means always those things, but environment also means other things to people," said Nixon. "It means, for example, for every family in America a job so that he can enjoy the environment around him. There are those who sometimes say we can't have both ... . We can have both and we shall have both ("Complete Text").

Nixon also praised Expo '74 for what it would leave in its wake: "A 100-acre park in the heart of the city of Spokane, which was once a blighted area" ("Complete Text"). Finally, Nixon intoned, "It is my high honor and privilege to declare Expo '74 officially open to all of the citizens of the world" (Bowers, p. 14).

Immediately, a spray of fireworks burst into air and 50,000 helium balloons floated upwards -- along with a dozen manned hot-air balloons arrayed around the grounds. Church bells rang out all over the city.

On the Spokane River

The crowds then dispersed throughout the fair. Lines quickly formed at each exhibit. The Soviet Union Pavilion was the most popular, since people were intensely curious about the contents of the huge 54,500-square-foot building. Coming in a surprise second was the much-smaller-scale Native American's Earth, the outdoors Indian exhibit. One of the organizers of the Indian exhibit said that on opening day "it was like the flood gates came open" (Youngs, p. 434).

Despite the waits and the crowds, people were in a festive and celebratory mood. One Spokane reporter took a survey of the fair's pressroom and said "a palpable feeling of cynicism and criticism" among reporters had been "replaced Saturday by enthusiasm" (Larry Young). The Christian Science Monitor reporter noted with approval that it was the only world's fair that had "taken its theme structure from a natural feature -- the Spokane River and its falls" (Larry Young).

Spokane columnist Dorothy R. Powers (1921-2014) recapped the day by calling it "the greatest day in Spokane's history" (Powers).


"Complete Text of Nixon's Address at Expo '74's Opening," The Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1974, p. 19; Larry Young, "Opening Day Goes Like Clockwork," The Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1974, p. 1; J. William T. Youngs, The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74, Transforming an American Environment (Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1996); Dawn Bowers., Expo '74 World's Fair Spokane, Official Commemorative of the Spokane World Exposition 1974 (Spokane: Expo '74 Corporation); Dorothy R. Powers, "President Praises Spokane, Expo '74," The Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1974, p. 1. "Expo '74 Souvenir Issue," The Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1974, in five sections, A through E; "Hello World," The Spokesman-Review, May 4, 2014, special section.; Official Souvenir Program, Expo '74 World's Fair, in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You