The Omaha World’s Fair

The far-reaching success of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 inspired community leaders in Omaha, Nebraska, to hold their own version of that historic event—the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. The Expo spread across 184 acres at the northern edge of Omaha, near the Missouri River, from June 1 to October 31, 1898. The Grand Court at the heart of the Expo consisted of majestic but temporary structures and statuary, lush gardens, and a canal with fountains and gondolas—all in stark contrast to the city of Omaha itself, which was still regarded by much of the nation as a frontier town, even as it grew and developed as a major Midwestern business center.

Though much smaller in scale and attendance than other world’s fairs of the period, such as the St. Louis World’s Fair which followed in 1904, the event captured the imagination of the region, received national attention in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, and Century Illustrated, and attracted two million visitors. Today, remnants of the Expo exist in public and private collections, but no structures remain at the site.

On the opening day of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the Omaha Bee described the Expo’s Grand Court on its front page:

“To the spectator it would seem that some long forgotten magician had escaped from the dingy covers of an ancient fairy tale and caressed the bare expanse of bluff and stubble with his creative wand. At the potent touch palaces of art and industry appeared as though fashioned from some low hanging cloud, their soaring domes and pinnacles resplendent in the June sunshine and their wide stretches of court and promenade gorgeous with the bloom and fragrance of Oriental gardens. Even nature is outdone by the persistent force and virility of the hustling west. For since the last snow flake disappeared the rugged bluff has been transformed into a panorama of turf and foliage and flower that seems like the creation of a dozen seasons.”

The Grand Court, also known as “The New White City” in reference to the classical architecture of the Chicago World’s Fair, exhibited the products, industries, art, and design of Nebraska and adjoining states, and sought to promote these products widely throughout the nation. The Expo also included a Midway of carnival rides and traveling attractions, and the Indian Congress, which was attended by more than 500 members of 35 different Native American tribes.

The photographs, newspaper articles, documents, and souvenirs featured in this digital archive—a partnership of the Omaha Public Library and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—captures the ambitions, controversies, criticisms, cultural attitudes, and technologies of the time, while also depicting the grandeur of the architecture and celebration of the region.