We like history. We want to be proud of the past. Sometimes, in order to be proud, we intentionally forget, ignore, or otherwise let go of the parts of the past that we’re not proud of.
For years, the people of Omaha have been told that all of the buildings of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition were demolished right after the event ended in the fall of that year. But they weren’t destroyed!
Instead, after all the success Omaha had with the Expo, a group of investors decided they needed to keep the buildings up and start another grand event. Working together, they raised enough money to buy the buildings.
In 1899, this group created a second event, swearing to Omaha’s residents it would be bigger than the first. They called it the Greater America Exposition. Unfortunately, they’d planned a racist, opportunist crapshoot designed to soak up money from visitors. Because of this, and simple bad planning, the second Omaha Expo is generally thought of as a failure today.
|A promotional pin saying, “Greater America Exposition – Omaha – 1899.”|
The Trans-Mississippi Expo Ends
After the Trans-Mississippi Expo ended in 1898, a group of investors immediately collected money from 200 people in order to buy the Expo grounds in Kountze Place.
Some buildings were torn down right away. Of the fifty state buildings at the Expo, the Kansas and New York buildings went first, with the New York building getting converted into a duplex somewhere in the neighborhood. The Nebraska building was moved and converted into storehouse for state property. The Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin buildings went shortly after.
|This is a comparison between 1898, 1898, and today.|
However, with rumors of another event the following year, many states decided to keep their buildings standing. The City of Omaha’s Parks Board waited on pulling out the trees, shrubs and flowers lent to the Expo, too, as they wanted to see what would happen.
Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Omaha Bee, chaired a committee dedicated to launching a new Expo in 1899. On November 1, 1898, this committee bought every part of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, including
“…buildings, appurtenances, engines, apparatus, materials and furniture for the sum of $17,500.00 and the assumption by the purchasers of all the obligations to the owners of lands leased for the purposes of the Exposition.”
If scenes from the Greater America Exposition look identical to ones from the Trans-Mississippi Exposition look similar, that’s because in many places they were!
The Spanish-American War Ends
In August 1898, the Spanish-American war ended, and in late November, Spain accepted the American terms for peace. In December, President McKinley said he favored Omaha hosting another expo during 1899 for the nation to share its new “possessions” gained from the war. That included Cuba, Guam, Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
At that time, racism was flaring across the United States. Staking out its colonial power through the Spanish-American War, the U.S. suddenly began to flex muscles it had only used within its boundaries before that. Now they wanted to show off the treasure trove of culture they stole from their new territories.
By late December 1898, the Expo’s lagoon was opened to ice skaters for season. That same month, the new gathering gained a name, now being called the Greater America Exposition of 1899. By Christmas, it was decided that the 1899 Expo will reflect the United States on a miniature scale. In March, Dr. George Miller was elected the chairman of the Greater America Exposition executive committee. That same month, the Omaha Bee used several posters by renowned artist John Ross Key to promote the Expo in the newspaper.
|A poster of the Expo lagoon by John Ross Key used by the Omaha Bee to advertise the 1899 Expo.|
Rides and Exhibitions
By March 1999, the federal government agreed to bring exhibits from all its new colonies. This event was definitely intended to be a celebration of American colonialism, the American empire, and the spread of military-driven capitalism. Many of the presentations were plainly racist, actively and deliberating attempting to show that white people were superior to every other person around the world.
|At the Greater America Exposition, Omaha Neb. 1899 “Just tell them that you saw me.”|
Attractions and Performances
|A worker’s pass to the GAE for
10 y.o. Frances Huston. Learn more here.
Some of the rides and displays at the Greater America Expo were supposed to include:
- The Enchanted Island, aka “At Midnight in Hawaii”
- An electric scenic theater
- The Cyclorama “Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge”
- Old Plantation
- Electric Wargraph Theater with Hobson sinking the Merrimac
- The Giant Seesaw
- A Chinese village
- A Cairo Street
- Spanish War Museum
- Hawaiian Village
Living Wounded Heroes exhibition
“Fat Man’s Beer Garden”
Arizona cactus garden
Deep Sea Diving exhibition
- Mexican Village
- Philippine Village
- German Village
- Porto Rico [sic] and Cuban Village
Electric fountain display
- Royal English Marionettes
- Phantom Swing
- Hagenbeck’s Wild Animal Circus
- Naiads of the Fountain
- Milwaukee Dairy
Venetian gondola ridesRed Windmill of Paris
- The Creche or Omaha Day Nursery
- Royal Japanese troupe of super acrobats
Beckwith Aquarium, and
- The Enchanted Chamber.
In April 1899, the organizing committee for this new expo thought everything was going well, and that huge crowds were likely to show up. However, after fighting with the committee over the previous five months, Edward Rosewater refused to rejoin the committee. He very plainly said they hadn’t raised enough money to make the new expo work. Although he ended up joining, what he said was a sign of things to come…
The committee proceeded making arrangements. The State of Nebraska agreed to canceling the Nebraska State Fair in 1899, and focusing all of its energy on the Greater America Expo. All the walkways were bricked in, 800 trees were planted around the lagoon, and 40,000 electric lights were ordered for the entire Expo. The committee was excited to report that, “GAE is almost a fairyland with 1500 new globes of white fire…”
The Midway was filled by June 1899.
There were many organizations that planned to present at the Greater America Expo. They included the Omaha Occult Society, the World Congress of Beauties, and the Orpheus Vaudeville Theater. St. Johns Lutheran Church of Council Bluffs purchased the giant “Wigwam” (a 50 foot tall plaster tipi) and planned to run a restaurant in it.
|An advertisement for Hagenbeck’s show. Courtesy of the Circus Historical Society.|
It Wasn’t So Great, and Didn’t Represent America
On July 1, 1899, the Greater America Exposition opened to the public. 28,000 visitors attended on July 4th, reputedly eclipsing the crowd that attended the previous year’s Trans-Mississippi Exposition. All total, in the first week of the 1899 Expo, there were 70,000 admissions, which organizers claimed was far greater than the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo.
|A July 1899 advertisement from the Omaha Bee.|
Hard Times Hit the Expo
|One of the few improvements on the Expo grounds was the removal of concrete walkways and their replacement by red brick.|
Going Out With A Riot?
However, “boisterous crowds” took aim at the Expo’s installations once lights went off at 9pm because the Expo was out of coal. As one period reporter wrote,
With the passing of the lights the pandemonium already rampant on the Midway descended into wild commotion. The crowd merged into a wriggling mass of humanity, like an army of centipedes… Signs were torn down, thatching torn off the Filipino Village. When the conglomeration grew more boisterous, the few remaining exhibitors began to close up their doors and box the more breakable goods… Reminding one of the preparations for an expected cyclone.”
In November, the Giant Seesaw, which premiered at the Trans-Mississippi Expo and was carried over into the Greater America Expo, was shipped to Coney Island. It was used there for more than a decade. By November 15, the original backers of the Expo were paid back. However, a group of unpaid employees filed a charge against the executive committee, threatening the Expo with bankruptcy. On November 29th, the Expo organization is declared insolvent. J.B. Kitchen, a local businessman who built the first Paxton Hotel in downtown Omaha, offered to head an effort to raise the money owned the workers from other local businessmen. He contributed $1,600 towards the $80,000 owed. Kitchen’s efforts weren’t successful, and on December 30, a judge awarded the workers the money due to them through bankruptcy proceedings.
|This is a scene from after the 1899 Great American Exposition, NOT the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo.|
A Mystery Park and Auditorium Never Built
Apparently, a park was proposed along the Bluff tract of the grounds between N. 16th and the cliff, and Manderson and Wirt Streets. A boulevard was planned to connect these 20 acres with Kountze Park. A plan was almost made to build an auditorium at Kountze Park that would hold 7,500 people and take up half the park.
There were some closing arguments among the various players involved. At one point, the Greater America Expo organizers threatened to sue the Trans-Mississippi Expo organizers over who was responsible for completing the final touches before the land was ceded to the City of Omaha Parks Board. The Parks Board, which never formally recognized the Greater America Expo organizers, threatened to sue members of the executive committee if the job wasn’t done.
In the final months of cleanup, which were May and June of 1900, there was a fire that took out the last remaining elements of the Expos.
|Everyday throughout the months of the Greater America Exposition, this type of ad ran in local newspapers.|
Deaths and Injuries
- July 26: Jennie Hoover, 14 year old daughter of the engineer of the Scenic Railroad was wading in the lake and drowned. Midway concessionaires took up a fund to help pay funeral expenses.
- September 4: R. C. Wisner, an employee on the Expo’s Midway, was arrested for reckless shooting. He was firing blanks as part of his show and pointed the gun at some boys, and accidentally shot one of them. The Omaha World-Herald wrote, he was “filling the forehead of one of them with powder, burning the flesh considerably.”
- September 7: Edith Shugart, a 3 year old child, was injured when she was bitten by a dog roaming the grounds. Her father worked at the Expo’s horse races.
- September 10: A Lincoln man put his knee through one of the mirrors in the Mystic Maze and had to be taken to a hospital.
- September 10: Julia Lone Elk, a tribal member participating in a horse race for women, was unconscious after she fell off her horse.
- Sept. 19: A group of seven boys fell from a 70 foot tall tree at N. 21st and Paul Streets while trying to watch the Wild West Show. They were perched on the highest limb of the tree and it broke. One suffered a broken leg.
- Sept. 28: An Oglala Sioux named Conquering Bear who was at the 1899 Indian Congress died in downtown Omaha when he jumped off a moving street car, fell and struck his head.
Why Not Remember?
I don’t know why more people don’t know about the Greater America Expo. Maybe it has always been eclipsed by the grandiosity and novelty of its predecessor. Maybe the right people weren’t involved. Maybe it really was just a big Midway, filled with fluff and no substance. Maybe it was plain imperialist racism that people don’t want to remember.
Whatever the reason, this blog is an attempt to rekindle the embers, relight the street globes and reinvigorate the streets of North Omaha with the history that built the place. Go ahead, take a ride on the Giant Seesaw and have a grand time!
- A History of the Kountze Place Neighborhood
- A History of N. 24th St.
- A History of N. 16th St.
- A History of Florence Boulevard
- A Wirt Street Historic District?
- A History of the Omaha Driving Park
- A History of North Omaha’s Omaha University Campus
- A History of North Omaha’s Hospitals and Healthcare
- A History of 20 Movie Theaters in North Omaha
- Miller, G. L. (April 16, 1899) “Greater America to the People of Omaha,” Omaha World-Herald.
- UNL Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition website.
- Construction of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition 1897-1898
- “Greater America Exposition at Omaha , July 1 to Nov. l, 1899” by The Bee
- “The Incoherencies of Empire: The “Imperial” Image of the Indian at the Omaha World’s Fairs of 1898-99” by Bonnie M. Miller (2008)
- “Greater America Exposition of 1899” Notes from the planning committee
- “Greater America Exposition Book of Views” (1899)
- “Greater America Exposition: Map of Grounds, Diagram of Buildings” (1899)
|An advertisement for the Greater America Expo’s Midway from the August 1899 Omaha Bee.|
|A pin declaring “Modern Woodmen Day – Greater America Exposition – Omaha, Neb., Oct. 12. ’99 – Visitor”
|This is the Machinery Hall at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|The Manufacture’s Building at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|This is the Mines and Mining Building at the Greater America Exposition in 1899.|
|The Fine Arts and Liberal Arts Building at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|This is the Horticulture Building at the Greater America Exposition at the 1899.|
|The Colonial Exhibits Building at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|This is the United States Building at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|This is the Agriculture Building at the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|
|The is the OFFICIAL Bird’s Eye View of the Greater America Exposition of 1899.|