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Beyond Shingle Diggin's

Published November 23, 1994


There was a “saying” in our family, repeated on appropriate occasions, which stemmed from an incident at the Courier office one day when an older man came in to renew his subscription to the newspaper.

“My wife thinks we don’t need this paper,” he said, “but I find things in the Courier that I don’t find in the Bible.”

Well, this past week I can give that saying a slightly different twist. “I could find things in the Courier (probably true of any local paper) that I couldn’t find in the Edison College Library in Fort Myers.”

There was this wonderful article which I happened on in the Courier files, kept at the Coloma library, on the Columbian Exposition of 1893. This is what I based my story on last week and there are more details I’d like to share but in my hasty exploration during those last busy days in Coloma there were a few factual holes I wanted to check. After searching through six reference books with very brief summaries, a few basic facts I wanted did emerge but, my friends, the esteemed Encyclopedia Britannica disagrees with the Courier and I’m banking on the Courier as being right.

The Encyclopedia said, “The exposition opened by a dramatic act when Grover Cleveland pushed a button in the White House and set the great Allis engine in motion in Chicago, turning on the electric power for the exposition.”

The Courier places him in Chicago. At 3:00 o’clock Monday afternoon, he was at the opening of the Swedish Pavilion, where they celebrated Sweden’s national holiday, and after the stars and stripes were flung out from the balcony, four cheers were given for President Cleveland, as well as four more for his Majesty King Oscar II.

At 3:30, we find him attending the dedication of the Women’s Building - “that magnificent testimonial to the achievements of womankind,” in Jackson Park. “The exercises were most interesting,” says the Courier, “including brief addresses by President Cleveland and Mrs. Potter Palmer, the driving of the golden nail which signified the completion of the building and speaking by distinguished guests of foreign delegations.”

Shortly before 5:00 p.m. the president left the exposition grounds. OK. Maybe it was Monday before the lights went on. “His exit was made amid continuous ovation. He took an Illinois Central train at the Sixty-fifth Street station where he was carried to Grand Crossing, where he was transferred to the special train, which soon left for Washington.”

Could he have arrived back at the White House in time to activate the switch on Monday night and give his inspiring speech before the lights were turned on? We aren’t working yet with airplanes, helicopters dropping presidents off on the White House lawn, radios or TVs to make instant communication possible. The dateline from Chicago was Tuesday, May 2, and I thought that’s the day he left, after attending the opening Monday night. Either way, it was a miracle of the Victorian Age. If anybody is interested in searching more for accuracy, please share your findings.

A.W. Baker was one of the early attendees who came home and described the fair in some detail. He marveled at the fair’s pools, fountains, and gleaming white buildings built along the Midway Plaisance, adjacent to the University of Chicago and for two miles along the shore of Lake Michigan. Some 150 buildings were constructed along artificial lagoons. Constructed under the architectural supervision of Daniel Burnham and designer Charles Atwood, most used were built of a material called STAFF, a composition of plaster of Paris and jute fibers that resemble marble. These lent the exposition its popular nickname, “The White City.”

Most of these structures were temporary, but everyone has the opportunity to see one of them; the Palace of Fine Arts, which was rebuilt in permanent limestone in 1928-32 to house the public exhibitions of the Museum of Science and Industry. Its 600,000 square feet has been added to but the Victorian feel is still there. Next time you go there, notice the opulence of the facade and as you travel up the building-wide steps, picture yourself back at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Of course, the artificial lagoons are gone ... but don’t knock them. Most of the condos or mobile homes I’ve looked at in Florida are found on artificial lagoon, lakes and waterways, so the idea, introduced by Chicago landscapers, headed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1893, has simply been expanded.

The other big hit of the fair, located along the midway, was a big double wheel which carried passengers to an altitude of 270 feet built by a visionary, name of George W.G. Ferris. He had received much ridicule on account of his pet project, but after several rebuffs he succeeded in obtaining a permit to put up his gadget. The work, begun in March, was completed just at fair opening. Twin wheels 30 feet apart are connected by iron rods. Outside these rods the cars are hung, supported by steel bars of about five inches in thickness from one wheel to the other. Curved iron beams outline each wheel. Circles which extend the massive iron truss work which holds them together. Thirty-six cars capable of carrying 40 people are each 27 feet long, 13 feet wide and 9 feet high and weigh 1,200 tons. A 1,000-horsepower steam engine will run this huge vehicle on cogs over a chain that looks like a mammoth bicycle chain.

Who’d like to be the first to ride? Well, as you can guess, it was a hit, and another Chicago World’s Fair idea that’s still around today.

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