More than 120 years ago, North Omaha hosted an event like a world fair. In 1898, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held for six months across 180-acres by Kountze Park. This is a history of the Expo.
Planning the Expo
Starting in the early 1890s, Omaha boosters dreamed of hosting something special to build their city up. With the closer of the frontier in the 1870s, the stagnation of the railroad system in the 1880s and a nationwide economic recession that hit Omaha particularly hard in the 1890s, the city needed a shot in the arm.
The first World Expo was held in London, England in 1851. Philadelphia held the first similar event in the U.S. called the Centennial Exposition in 1876. However, it was the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 that really moved Omaha’s interests forward.
In May 1896, Senator William V. Allen of Nebraska introduced a bill “to authorize and encourage the holding of a Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition at the city of Omaha in the State of Nebraska, in the year 1898, and making an appropriation therefor.” $250,000 moved through the Senate in the Omaha Expo Bill, and the event was underway. Immediately after that, Douglas County sold $100,000 in bonds.
That year, there was a great struggle among real estate speculators in Omaha to host the Expo. Huge tracts were pitched around the city, including East Omaha, Miller Park, Hanscom Park and others. However, pioneer banker Herman Kountze made the winning bid at the last minute and hosted the event on his massive land holdings in North Omaha.
A History of the Buildings at the Expo
There were more than 120 buildings constructed for the Trans-Mississippi Expo in 1898, with many of them reused for the Greater America Expo in 1899. Construction began in late 1897, with the Administration Arch started first and finished first. By the end of 1899 all of the buildings were gone, either completely demolished or moved and reused in a different location.
There are some misunderstandings of the buildings at the Expo. Some people say they were all built of a mix of horsehair and plaster called staff. While that’s true of the 11 largest buildings surrounding the lagoon in the Grand Court and a few others, it’s untrue of the remainder of the construction there. Even the Grand Court buildings had massive wood frames within, and millions of board feet of slats for the staff to be spread across. They were built that way to make them affordable and removable; they weren’t made to be permanent.
Here is a list of buildings at the Expo grounds from 1897 to 1899.
Grand Court Buildings
The Grand Court was the main feature of the Expo. Made of a 12-block long lagoon dug into the land between North 17th and North 23rd Streets, the court was surrounded by eleven massive buildings designed in a Neo-Classical Revival style to look like Greco-Roman architecture. The included an Electrical and Machinery Hall; the Manufactures Building and International Hall designed by J. J. Humphreys of Denver; the Administration Arch designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Arch of the States designed by Walker & Kimball; the Agriculture Building designed by Cass Gilbert of St. Paul; the Government Building designed by the Life Saving Service of Washington, DC; the Fine Arts Building designed by Eames & Young of St. Louis; the Mines and Mining Building designed by S. S. Beman of Chicago; the Liberal Arts Building and Auditorium designed by Press Fisher & Lawrie of Omaha and; the Girls and Boys Building designed by Walker & Kimball.
There were dozens of buildings immediately surrounding the Grand Court. They included the Horticulture Building designed by Chas. F. Beindorff of Omaha; the Apiary designed by John McDonald of Omaha; the Dairy Building designed by F. A. Henninger of Omaha; the Service Building designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Hospital designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Fire and Police Building designed by Walker & Kimball; the Transportation Building designed by Walker & Kimball, and; the Press Building.
The states that made up the Trans-Mississippi region had their own buildings, and other states around the nation did, too. Of course they included the Nebraska Building, the largest and most expensive state building at the Expo, which was designed by Craddock & McDonald of Lincoln and Omaha. Others included the Illinois and Annex Building designed by Wilson & Marshall of Chicago; the Georgia Building designed by Dunnavant & Thompson of Nashville and Omaha; the Iowa Building designed by Josselyn & Taylor of Cedar Rapids along with the Council Bluffs/ Pottawattamie County Wigwam Building; the Wisconsin Building designed by Ferry & Clas of Milwaukee; the Minnesota Building designed by McLeod & Lamoreaux of Minneapolis; the New York Building designed by Dunham Wheeler of New York; the Kansas Building designed by John F. Stanton of Topeka; the Montana Building designed by Leo Bonet of Omaha, and; the Oregon Building.
There were a dozen buildings along the Midway. They included a Chinese village and a Moorish village; a German village and a Flemish village; an English County Fair; a Greek Theatre; a Turkish Bazaar; the “Devil’s Dance”; the Temple of Palmistry; a Moorish Maze; the Illusion Palace, and; the Sod House.
There were a lot of buildings made to entertain people. They included the Giant Seesaw, Shooting the Chutes, and the Cyclorama of the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac. The Old Plantation had a cotton field, and the the Chautauqua was more of a temporary building. Rolling the Roll was a popular ride, as was the Miniature Train along the Midway.
The Expo grounds were a collection of unique and vibrant buildings, sculptures and other construction that should be noted. Walker and Kimball designed many other notable items throughout the grounds. For instance, there were two viaducts crossing North 16th Street were beautiful art in themselves. The restaurants and towers flanking the south viaduct were regal, too. Kiosks and ticket booths throughout the Expo grounds were pretty, as well as the Band Stand waiting performances and speeches by some of the luminaries who visited the Expo, including President McKinley and John Philip Sousa.
Along with the lagoon, the water features were spectacular. Walker and Kimball designed an Electric Fountain in the basin, as well as the surround for the lagoon. Another artist designed the gigantic Nautilus Fountain, while Walker and Kimball asserted their artistic eye with the Arch of States fountains.
Even the Electrical Power Plant was a marvel, designed to generate more concentrated electricity than any world’s fair type event had seen so far.
The Trans-Mississippi Exposition ended in November 1898. Given their temporary construction, everyone intended to rip down the buildings immediately, and some buildings were demolished that winter. Almost immediately though, a scheme for another event was hatched. Many of the buildings were sold to another regime intending to host another massive event.
After the Greater America Expo was held in 1899, every building on the Expo ground was demolished. Today, there are few reminders of the spectacularly grand vision of the designers of the Expos. The Durham Museum has a model of the Grand Court and the Omaha Public Library has a massive collection of photos and relics from the event.
There isn’t a lot of physical evidence that the Trans-Mississippi Exposition ever happened, that 120 temporary buildings once made North Omaha into a Greco-Roman dreamland, or that 2,000,000 people came to play one year, and 1.3 million came the next. Instead, a few historical markers stand at the Kountze Park today giving broad sweeping viewpoints of the event without exploring the nuances that made the events matter.
The impact of the Expo is still felt in the surrounding neighborhood though. Over the next decade, Neo-Classical style architecture became important, and quite a few churches and homes were built in homage to the important Expos that felt so grand. The North Presbyterian Church, the Sherman, a few houses on Wirt, the old Reagan House, and several other buildings reflect that grandiosity.
Items Lost and Found Again
Part of the legacy of the Expo are rumors of pieces of the Expo around Omaha today. One of the definite items left is the Storz bierstube, which is located at Lauritzen Gardens. Note that this wasn’t actually part of the Trans-Mississippi Expo, but only the Greater America Expo. A lot of people remember the Riverview Park pavilion, which was made of the columns and wood from the Girls’ and Boys’ Building. After 50 years of service, apparently it rotted apart and was demolished in 1948. There’s a longstanding myth about the Minnesota State Building, build of fine northern wood as a giant log cabin. There are alternate myths that it was disassembled and floated to the Iowa/Missouri line to be an illegal brothel, and that it was disassembled and moved to the northern Pottawatomie County line. According to local historian Ryan Roenfeld, that is a complete myth with no basis in reality. For a long time, I’ve been starring at pics of the fountain at Strehlow Terrace, known as Ernie Chambers Court today. Robert Strehlow, a builder of the Expo who built the North 16th landmark apartments, rescued the fountain and placed it in his beautiful courtyard. However, when the Omaha Housing Authority renovated the apartments in the 1980s, the fountain went missing and has never been recovered. Similarly, rumors of the organs once located in the Auditorium being moved to nearby churches have never been substantiated.
There was a “miniature roller coaster,” aka a carousel at the Expo that was eventually installed at Courtland Beach. When that amusement park was closed, many of the items were moved to a new amusement park next door called the Lakeview Amusement Park, but I can’t find whether the carousel made the move.
The Giant See Saw at the Expo grounds was sold to some men that brought it to Coney Island, where it operated for another 60 years. The top of one ionic column was excavated from Kountze Park in the 1980s, and today its housed at the Durham Museum.
According to research by Omaha historian Michele Wyman, there were intentions to create a long lasting monument to the Expo. Early plans for the Arch of the States showed it being built with stone from each of the states in the Trans-Mississippi region. However, the design of the Arch took too long and the stones weren’t collected. Instead, it was made of a wooden frame and staff, and was demolished at the end of the Greater America Exposition in 1899.
Another possible commemoration took the form of the iron bridges made to carry Florence Boulevard traffic over the grand lagoon. Made in 1897, when the Expo grounds were demolished in 1899 the bridges were moved. The north bridge was taken to Miller Park to cross the Minne Lusa Creek by Redick Avenue. Eventually, the south bridge was taken there too and placed along Birch Drive, also crossing the Minne Lusa Creek. Both of them were eventually destroyed then taken away for scrap metal.
In 1998, the Trans-Mississippi Expo Memorial Committee was responsible for garnering the resources to build the Kountze Park gazebo, which stands there today. Built with elements similar to a Neo-Classical structure, this was definitely not from the original events a century earlier.
In May 2019, the Douglas County Historical Society opened an exhibit at the General Crook House featuring memorabilia from the Expo, including medals and posters and dishes and more. Things like this come up for sale regularly on Ebay and elsewhere, too, but none as rare as what the Society has.
There is a lot of missing history from the Expo though. This includes the roles of socio-economic, race and gender; the assumptions leading the the events and the outcomes; and the impact on the specific place where the Expo grounds were, North Omaha. Its apparently rarely mentioned in public school history classes, and most people in the city have no idea what happened in North Omaha in 1898 and 1899.
You Might Like…
- A History of the Greater America Expo
- A History of Kountze Park
- A History of the Kountze Place Neighborhood