The Seattle Times 1896-1996
Bringing Up The Family

This story ran in The Seattle Times on February 18, 1996

By Sharon Boswell
and Lorraine McConaghy
Special to The Times

Huge crowds throng the Pay Streak, a carnival-like midway offering everything from mock Civil War battles to Chinese juggling acts. Photo Credit: F. H. Nowell / AYPE Photographer

   THE GATES OF THE ALASKA-YUKON-PACIFIC EXPOSITION OPENED at 8:30 a.m., but early on the morning of Sept. 2, 1909, a crowd of Smiths had already gathered.
   Yes, Smiths: By that evening, more than 5,000 people with America's most common surname had celebrated Smith Family Day, with ceremonies that included a Smith parade and awards for the tallest and shortest, fattest and thinnest, most beautiful and most homely Smiths in attendance.
   Smith Day was but one promotion in a calendar crammed with special events. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was designed to showcase Seattle as an ambitious port city, the up-and-coming commercial center of the Pacific coast. But a huge turnout of local residents was essential to the fair's financial success.
   Boosters predicted the fair would bring the city worldwide recognition, and business to match. Yet it also -- perhaps more than its planners ever envisioned -- drew together the citizens of Seattle, uniting them in pride, even awe, at the cultural extravaganza they were hosting.
   The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition officially opened on June 1, 1909, on the University of Washington campus. Nearly 90,000 local residents and guests from around the world helped celebrate Seattle's achievement.
   President William Howard Taft wired his congratulations from the nation's capital, complimenting the people of the Northwest on the exposition, "designed as it is to exploit the natural resources and marvelous wealth of Alaska and the development of trade and commerce on the Pacific Slope."
   When the president pressed a telegraph key, studded with gold nuggets from the Klondike, and transmitted his message to Seattle, the crowd responded with shouts of triumph.
   The exposition's local backers no doubt breathed a sigh of relief. Nearly four years before, these civic leaders had organized an exposition company charged with promoting and financing a huge trade fair.
   They raised preliminary funds with a capital stock offering, and Seattleites responded generously by purchasing $650,000 worth of shares in just one day. The state agreed to contribute $1 million to the effort if most of it went into creating permanent buildings that the university would get at the exposition's end. The remaining money came from the federal government, potential exhibitors, local banks and individuals.

Inside the Alaska Building, exhibits include treasures from coastal Indian peoples and examples of the state's natural wonders.
Photo Credit:Seattle Times

   But when the completion date neared, the fair's board almost ran out of money. Local newspapers stepped in, cajoling and shaming wealthy residents into supplying the rest. Contrary to predictions, the fair opened on time.
   Critics still argued that the price tag for the fair -- nearly $10 million -- was too expensive and that no one would attend. But attend they did. More than a million showed up in the first month and a half.
   Besides special events to attract visitors, the exposition sold bonus passbooks allowing multiple visits at reduced rates, and The Times published a daily schedule of events on the front page, enticing area families to take advantage of this rare opportunity.
   Frequent fairgoers had their own favorite buildings and exhibits. Crowds often congregated in front of the imposing United States pavilion, enjoying spectacular vistas of cascading waterfalls, fountains and Mount Rainier, while others admired the Forestry Building with its colonnade of monumental Northwest fir.
   Hundreds of cities, states and foreign countries sponsored displays, but the most lavish highlighted the riches of the Pacific Rim -- everything from fanciful arrangements of California produce to Asian silks and teas to realistic depictions of gold mining in Alaska. Commercial exhibitors showed examples of the latest technologies, while the federal government treated fairgoers to glimpses of the nation's past.
The exposition at night After dark, electric lights silhouette the fair's major buildings.Photo Credit:Seattle Times

   BUT THE PAY STREAK WAS THE FAIR'S MOST POPULAR FEATURE, its carnival-like midway always jammed with thrillseekers wanting a turn on the ferris wheel, a ride in a rickshaw or a view of exotic dancers from Cairo.
   Thousands even paid to stare at native peoples from the Philippines, the Igorrotes, who lived through the entire fair in a replica of one of their villages.
   In the 138 days that the exposition lasted, Taft visited along with many foreign dignitaries and heads of state, but most of the 3.7 million who came through the gates were Northwest families just like the Smiths. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition introduced Seattle to the world as a first-class commercial city but also introduced a world of wonders to eager local residents.

Historians Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy teach at local universities and do research, writing and oral history. Original newspaper graphics courtesy of the Seattle Public Library.

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