Willoughby: Aspen and the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition
Legends & Legacies
A popular recent book, “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City” by Margaret Creighton, chronicles the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Much of it correlates to what Aspenites experienced and thought about that year.
The highlight of the exposition was the ample use of electric lights. The buildings were outlined with bulbs showing off something new, the ability of electricity to transform the night. At the time the competition between Westinghouse with alternating current and Edison with direct current had not been settled. AC got an edge from the exposition.
Electricity, even though relatively new nationally, was old hat in Aspen. The city already had streetlights and many wired homes. The mines had adapted it to practical use; combining with pneumatic drills, underground drilling had made a technological leap from hard physical labor to machine-assisted work.
The 1893 exposition in Chicago celebrated American technology alongside European advances. It drew huge crowds including many from Aspen. Aspen proudly presented the Silver Queen statue, which included spun glass hair and solid silver spokes on a chariot, in the Colorado exhibit to champion free coinage of silver.
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Buffalo was only a one-day train ride to most Americans, but not as close as Chicago to Aspen. The railroads advertised for months. You could take the Colorado Midland from Aspen for about $1,400, in today’s dollars, and for an additional $25 make it round-trip. The Denver and Rio Grand fare for second-class was about $1,300.
Before the exposition opened there were articles about exhibits, but a controversy took up more paper space. More than a million people signed a petition to stop the exposition from opening on Sundays. Led by the Temperance Movement, it gained popularity and then it was turned into a lawsuit that failed.
The first from Aspen to go to the exposition was Olive Bacon, who went as a Colorado delegate. The next few were teachers who went after school let out: Mrs. E.C. Bonnell, Miss Wohlford, Mrs. Woodbridge and Professor Smith. After the early June visitors The Aspen Times stopped listing visitors.
One of the more popular, and also controversial, exhibitors at the exposition was Frank Bostock’s menagerie that featured the elephant Jumbo II. Elephants and menageries were very popular then. You did not need to go to Buffalo to see them; the Sells and Grey “big circus and menagerie railroad show” came to Aspen in July.
The Pan-American Exhibition was not able to attract nearly the number of visitors that the 1893 Chicago fair generated, but that was mostly because while visiting the exhibition in September, President William McKinley was assassinated. McKinley was taken to the hospital and surgeons repaired the damage from the bullet, and then he was moved to a nearby home. Aspen and the country hung on day-by-day following medical reports. At first he was at near death, then began to recover, and after seven days deteriorated and died. The Aspen Times covered the story every day and also the anger at and interest in his assassin who was tabbed a radical anarchist.
McKinley had been courted by the exposition as the major visitor, because he was president, but also because the exposition’s theme was the ascendency of America, but it was really limited to white America. McKinley’s Spanish American War was quite popular even though at the time of the exposition, there was still insurrection in the Philippines.
Aspenites joined Americans grieving over the assassination even though McKinley had not been a popular president in Aspen. Like President Grover Cleveland before him, he was against the monetization of silver. Even longtime Republican leaders like B. Clark Wheeler worked against his candidacy.
Aspen’s mayor, F.J. Mollin, in conjunction with a national proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt, asked that all public businesses close Sept. 19, 1901, “the day be devoted to reference the character of our deceased president and prayer to Almighty God for guidance in this time of bereavement.” Not long after, the Wheeler featured filmed scenes of the assassination day by Hasy’s Moving Pictures.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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