In the nearly sixteen years I have worked in the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Museum Store, the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair — most commonly known as the Lewis and Clark Exposition — continues to be the event that prompts the most visitor questions. Since my visit to Seattle’s Space Needle at age nine, I’ve been fascinated by the history of world’s fairs, including the Lewis and Clark Exposition. As Manager of Merchandise Operations at OHS, I have the pleasure of curating the store’s bookshelves and helping curious visitors discover the perfect books, articles, and reproductions of photographs and ephemera from our collections to learn more about the expo and many other topics in Oregon’s history.
World’s fairs by design are grand visual spectacles meant to attract large audiences. According to Carl Abbott’s Oregon Encyclopedia entry, “Lewis and Clark Exposition,” organizers keen on promoting the city as a hub of western economic activity ushered in over a million and a half visitors in under five months to Northwest Portland’s Guild’s Lake area. Who wouldn’t want to accept an invitation to a several-months-long celebration of “progress?” That sense of wonder embodied by the fair comes through in promotional posters from the period, such as the famous bird’s eye view held in the OHS Research Library’s collections (pictured at the top of this post). Museum Store visitors who look at reproductions of this poster depicting the 400-acre fairgrounds filled with grand exhibition halls are as enamored today as in the past — images of the poster are one of the best-selling items in the store.
For those interested in learning more, I’ll point them to Carl Abbott’s masterfully-written work, The Great Extravaganza: Portland and the Lewis and Clark Exposition. The book provides an accessible account of the exposition’s history, answering curious inquirers’ most frequent questions. While exploring the Portland history shelf at the store, visitors should also peruse Jane Comerford’s gorgeous, oversized book, A History of Northwest Portland: From the River to the Hills. An entire chapter in the book is devoted to the Guild’s Lake area and is illustrated with photographs that, in my opinion, best capture the exposition’s grandeur. Those living within the footprint of the former fair site often ask me about its transformation, which is detailed in the Oregon Historical Quarterly’s Spring 2006 article titled, “Photo Essay: Guild's Lake Industrial District: The Process of Change over Time.”
After flipping through books on the subject, most inquire about whether they are able to visit the majestic exhibition halls for themselves. Unfortunately, none of the buildings remain — fire destroyed the last standing structure, the massive Forestry Building, in 1964 — but there are some smaller physical reminders around the city. The World Forestry Center building in Washington Park is the spiritual successor to the “World’s Largest Log Cabin” and its second floor Discovery Museum features an exhibit with artifacts from the exposition. While in Washington Park you can also view Alice Cooper’s Sacajawea sculpture that features prominently in Deborah M. Olsen’s Joel Palmer award-winning Summer 2008 OHQ article, “Fair Connections: Women’s Separatism and the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905” and Jeffrey Uecker’s Winter 2002 OHQ article, “Picturing the Corps of Discovery: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Oregon Art.”
Visitors exploring the Oregon Historical Society’s new permanent exhibit, Experience Oregon, can view a range of unique souvenirs, ribbons, passes, and a plate from the exposition, all framed by a reproduction of the colonnade that stood at the fair’s entrance. From now until November 17, Pittock Mansion is staging an exhibition titled Portland’s World’s Fair: Souvenirs of the Lewis and Clark Exposition, featuring some of the more fanciful objects from a private collection. As a pen aficionado, I was drawn to the ink well hidden beneath the shell of a celluloid black crab whose pincers acted as the resting place for a dip pen.
Astute readers also want to learn more about the intent and focus of the fair that, as the official title suggested, provided a space to learn about and practice themes of American nationalism, social “progress,” and economic expansionism. Lisa Blee’s Summer 2005 OHQ article, “Completing Lewis and Clark’s Westward March: Exhibiting a History of Empire at the 1905 Portland World’s Fair,” and Emily Trafford’s Summer 2015 OHQ article, “Hitting the Trail: Live Displays of Native American, Filipino, and Japanese People at the Portland World’s Fair,” both provide excellent analysis of those themes.
Even after taking in all of the aforementioned books, articles, images, and ephemera, I am still compelled to learn more about the exposition. Stop by the OHS Museum Store, and maybe I will be able to meet you as you find your way to “The Trail.”
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