99 Years Ago

Jeff Alworth

Nearly a hundred years ago, in the summer of 1905, the state of Oregon was hosting the Lewis and Clark Exposition in honor of the centennial anniversary of the explorers’ journey west. In the 4 1/2 months between June and October 15, 2.5 million visitors passed through the gates. As a result, population in Oregon spiked and Portland became a boom town, tripling its size by 1920. Carl Abbott wrote that "Times in Portland have never again been so prosperous as during the years from 1905 to 1912. Every statistical indicator told the same story of sustained economic growth." Moreover, it was a time of enormous optimism and civic growth, when, for Oregonians, anything seemed possible.

What a difference 99 years make.

Expo Next year will mark the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival in Oregon. Plans are far more restrained. The Oregon Historical Society plans to have four exhibits marking the occasion, and Fort Clatsop is also joining the celebration. But these efforts can hardly compare.

For the centennial, planners started preparations five years before the Exposition (officially, the "Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair"), a group composed of a cohesive union of government and business leaders. The Oregon Historical Society set the date for the event, and in short order the legislature pledged to support it financially and local businesses ponied up $300,000. Eventually, thanks to support from regional partners in neighboring states, the US Congress agreed to add $475,000. Boosters launched a two-year publicity campaign, promoting Oregon and its natural bounty. The result was greater-than-expected attendance, a small profit, and one of the most successful of the many turn-of-the-century expositions.

I’m not suggesting that the state has done anything wrong by not repeating its grand gesture of a century ago. Different times pose different opportunities and challenges, and I won't second-guess why Oregonians didn't plan for a second great party. What's more stark is the situation the state and city now find themselves in. Division is the norm, and squabbles over how to raise and spend money and how to govern the behavior of citizens are what occupy our leaders. Where 100 years ago Oregonians lifted their eyes to the horizon and asked how to make the state great, now we're too busy holding each other in headlocks over tax cuts to notice there's a horizon.

After 1905, our predecessors were described as having a "buoyancy of spirit." According to historians, "this period beginning with the fair and ending with World War I was Portland's golden age." We can all take a sizeable helping of blame for the headlocks (mmm, tasty!). It's hard not to return a left jab with a right cross. But every time we decide to lower our eyes from the horizon, we lose the opportunity to think big, to join together and bring the state a needed golden age.

There's an irony here. We're so worried about the small stuff that we can't consider something vast and grand, like a world's fair. But the lesson of 1905 is that holding the vast, grand event actually solved the small stuff. Not because the event was so amazing, but because working together produces golden ages. Headlocks produce headaches.

  • Noah Brimhall (unverified)

    "I’m not suggesting that the state has done anything wrong by not repeating its grand gesture of a century ago."

    Well, then I will. I am happy to see Jeff posting about the Lewis and Clark Expo. When I first heard about the Lewis and Clark Expo about 10 years ago, I hoped that Portland would again host a grand exposition celebrating the bicentenial. As the time before the bicentenial got shorter and shorter and nothing grand was planned for the bicentenial, I was very dishartened. I'm not sure we could agree to achieve something as grand as the Lewis and Clark Expo of 1905, but we should have tried. I can't imagine a better use for our renovated convention center. What a great way to highlight what Portland has to offer the country and the world at the start of the 21st century.

  • iggi (unverified)

    great post...btw, i'm glad i can finally see this site

  • John Frost (unverified)

    Have to say I agree with Noah. Portland/Oregon should have been more on the ball with this one. '05 is the year after an election year, year after an olympics, year after... etc. People would be looking for something to do, somewhere to go and Portland could have been the answer.

    I moved away from the lovely state of Oregon in 1992. But I did a lot of research on Lewis and Clark's journey through the state, at one point even lobbying private logging companies to clearly mark and open up the L&C trail that ran through their forests. No Dice on that one. I couldn't even get permission to hike it myself.

    A 2005 L&C Exposition was a high school dream of mine, now I wish I had stayed and made it a reality.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Excellent article. Your point that we have gotten bogged down as a state with what amounts to as the small stuff is, sadly, right on.

    As an interesting aside. When I attended PSU I lived in a house at 1502 SW Hall. We were told that the grand old house was built as a house of the future for the Lewis and Clark Expo. The house is still there, but I have never verified if that story was true.

  • (Show?)

    It was an article both about missed opportunities, but also about striking a note of harmony. I know that legislators and civic leaders have had a lot on their plates over the past four years, so I didn't want to point a finger of blame. On the other hand, the L&C Expo was literally one of the major national expos of the early 20th Century, and I had hoped to see something grand, too.

    As an interesting side, Oregon, by hosting that expo, essentially "branded" Lewis and Clark. The explorers traveled through large swaths of America, but when it came time to appropriate the legacy, Oregon was the first in line. For the bicentennial, Missouri's been the big leader. Oregon, which just launched that "dreamers" campaign, missed an opportunity to keep that legacy connected firmly to our reputation when we failed to take the lead and host another national celebration.

    (We've lived through worse, and who can say what will happen in 101 years.)

  • Bill (unverified)

    While it is too late to do anything grand for the L&C bicentennial, we're five years out from the state's sesquicentennial. Oregon will be 150 in 2009, and I haven't heard of any plans yet. While it doesn't have the national scale that Lewis & Clark does, it affords another opportunity to celebrate and commemorate. What lasting legacies can we leave? Let's start planning now!

  • (Show?)

    Jeff lauded the accomplishments of the Portlanders who created the centennial exposition, and I agree with many of his points. Yet, while the 1905 "Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair" was an important event in Portland history, I don't think it is a model we should emulate today. (Certainly, we wouldn’t want to emulate some of the exposition exhibits.)

    For starters, the Exposition had very little to do with Lewis and Clark. The expedition was simply a convenient theme for an event that was designed to attract business, particularly from the Pacific Rim, and to show American East Coast elites that Portland was more than a mere frontier burgh. The Exposition was a commercial venture, start to finish, and the heightened civic engagement it brought about was an ancillary benefit. The exposition grounds themselves, with their fanciful buildings, terraced gardens, and man-made Guild’s Lake, could have remained as a legacy to future Portlanders. Instead, by 1913 the lake was silted over, the gardens were gone, and most of the buildings dismantled. (Exceptions include the Forestry Building, used as the Forestry Center until it burned in 1964, and the National Cash Register Building, which was moved to St. Johns and is now owned by McMenamins.)

    The Exposition is fascinating, both for what it did and for what it didn’t do—if you’re interested, take a look at Carl Abbott's definitive book, The Great Extravaganza: Portland and the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Also, watch for an exhibit on the Exposition at the Oregon Historical Society next year.

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