n April 30, 1904, Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company President David R. Francis officially opened the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—also known as the 1904 World’s Fair—with the call, “Open ye gates. Swing wide, ye portals.” A magnificent spectacle greeted the opening day crowd of 200,000—a dazzling city stood on what had been a woodland park. Fair organizers had erected nearly 1,500 buildings—including several grand “palaces”—across 1,200 acres of a newly redesigned Forest Park. That magnificent fairground equated America’s expansion westward since the Louisiana Purchase with the nation’s cultural and economic progress. As one exuberant writer noted in the World’s Fair Bulletin, the Exposition’s official journal:

“The heroes of Homer’s Iliad were engaged in petty achievements when compared with the work of the men who wrestled a vast wilderness from savages and wild beasts and made it the seat of twenty great commonwealths in a single century.”

For the next seven months, St. Louisans and travelers from across the globe experienced the latest achievements in technology, fine arts, manufacturing, science, civics, foreign policy and education. The Fair boasted extravagant exhibits from fifty foreign countries and forty-three of the then forty-five states. Festival Hall, in the center of the Colonnade of States overlooking the Grand Basin, had a seating capacity of 3,500. Eight principal palaces surrounded Festival Hall.

Of course, the 1904 World’s Fair offered more than lofty, noble ideas; fair-goers had ample opportunity to indulge in popular culture and entertainment on the mile-long arcade known as the Pike. Considered the carnival side of the Fair, Pike visitors could enjoy fifty different amusements, including contortionists, reenactments of the Boer War, babies in incubators, the Dancing Girls of Madrid, Jim Key the Educated Horse, and Hagenbeck’s Zoological Paradise and Animal Circus—which featured an elephant water slide. Although not on the Pike, the most spectacular concession was the Observation Wheel; from the top of the wheel—265 feet above the Fair—riders enjoyed the best aerial view of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

By the time the Fair closed on December 1, 1904, an estimated 20 million people had reveled in the wonders of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition thrust St. Louis into the global spotlight; since then, the 1904 World’s Fair has been forever ingrained in our regional identity. It has become a powerful symbol of our city, a barometer by which we measure subsequent civic progress, and a source of tremendous pride.