The City of Light, Part I

The long-planned Pan-American Exposition opened in Buffalo, New York on May 1, 1901.
It promised to be the most brilliant display of progress and ingenuity ever conceived in the United States of America. Congress pledged $500,000 to ensure the success of the Exposition, and to highlight the commercial well-being and good understanding among the American Republics. The newly-elected Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was there to give a speech to kick off the opening ceremonies, and over 200,000 people witnessed it.

The official Pan-American Exposition logo, designed by Raphael Beck

The rationale for choosing Buffalo to host the Pan-Am Exposition was its large population and central location. With a population of over 350,000, Buffalo was the United States’ eighth largest metropolis, and over 40 million people could reach the city in a single day, if they traveled by railway. The city had reserved a large tract of land for the exposition, extending from Delaware Avenue to Elmwood Avenue and northward to Great Arrow Avenue.

For the city of Buffalo, it was an opportunity to be showcased as the manifestation of prosperity and progress. One of the wonders of the Exposition was the hydroelectric energy that allowed the architects of the exposition to use electric lights to illuminate the place. The American press called it The City of Light.

At its center, fair-goers could visit the 409’ Electric Tower, designed by John Galen Howard.i It represented the power of the elements, and the mysterious force of electricity. Perched atop the tower was the winged figure of the Goddess of Light by Herbert Adams.


The massive Electric Tower was 409 feet tall. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Harnessing the power of electricity on such a grand scale excited the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, who cried: “Niagara Power will make Buffalo the greatest city in the world!” All in all, the Pan-American Exposition was on track to be an enormous success. And the crowning glory would be President William McKinley’s visit in early September.

William McKinley was inaugurated as America’s 25th president in 1897. He was extraordinarily devoted to his wife Ida. The couple had had two daughters, both of whom died before age 5. The First Lady never recovered from her shock and grief, and became a chronic invalid.
The McKinley White House was steeped in quiet sadness but the focus of the administration was prosperity. One of the hallmarks of McKinley’s first term was his focus on tariffs, to protect American workers.

The vice president, Garret Augustus Hobart, died in office in November of 1899. If a similar tragedy occurred today, a new vice president would be chosen very quickly. The president, however, left the office vacant for over a year, until his second term began.

McKinley was reelected easily in 1900. His second term began on March 4, 1901, with Theodore Roosevelt as the new vice president, ending the vacancy after 468 days. To celebrate, the president immediately embarked on a tour of western states, where he was greeted by cheering crowds. The tour would end in Buffalo, where the president and first lady were scheduled to spend two days at the Pan-American Exposition.

Go to Part II >

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