The City that Welcomed the World

Industry on the Chicago River
Industry on the Chicago RiverUnited States Army Corps of Engineers
Columbia Avenue in Manufactures Building, 1893 World's Fair
Columbia Avenue in Manufactures Building, 1893 World's FairJackson, William Henry, 1843-1942
Imaginary view of the site of Chicago in 1779
Imaginary view of the site of Chicago in 1779Andreas, A. T. (Alfred Theodore), 1839-1900

The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened in 1893, a year late to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the western hemisphere. Better late than never, the planners intended the fair to embody the economic, social and political coming of age of Chicago and the American West. The city had transformed itself from a muddy traders’ outpost in the 1840s to a metropolis of more than a million residents in 1890. It was the railroad hub of the continent, and a scrappy challenger to America’s East Coast powerbrokers.


The “White City,” as the fair grounds were known, offered a lavish and tightly controlled spectacle of modern technology and scientific achievement. With displays sponsored by many countries across the globe, the Fair offered Americans a peak at the new global market for raw materials and manufactured goods


But the city beyond the fair grounds was also a symbol for all that was going wrong with the new society. Chicago was a dirty industrial center, infamous for its saloons, brothels, and political corruption. Its working class was predominantly foreign born, and it was well known for labor strife.


Just six years before the Fair, the city had executed four labor activists involved in a national effort to win the 8 hour day for workers. These “Haymarket Anarchists” were reviled by the press, but became martyrs in the eyes of many working people throughout the world. In 1893, while summer tourists crowded the World’s Fair, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining Haymarket codefendants, declaring their trial a miscarriage of justice. The following year, the city’s working class districts erupted in violence as federal troops occupied the Chicago to suppress a strike by the American Railway Union against the Pullman Palace Car company.


At the close of the nineteenth century, Chicago identified itself with the frontier era even though the frontier generation had passed from the scene. But the growth of the city was also demise of the frontier, and the future was anything but clear. The fair’s White City and the everyday gray city of Chicago coexisted uneasily, a clean imagined future and a grubby present day reality. This was the stage for two visions of the American frontier offered by Frederick Turner and Bill Cody.