1893: A World’s Fair Mystery – The Columbian Exposition of 1893

The game takes place in the year 1893, the setting, Chicago, on the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Exposition was held to celebrate – one year late — the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. It was the largest tourist attraction America has ever known, before or since, drawing an estimated 27 million visitors before closing on October 31.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893

It was the greatest of all the American World’s Fairs, the only one to rival in grandeur and spectacle the fairs of Paris. In fact the World’s first Ferris Wheel, a towering giant with carriages the size of streetcars, was built here in response to the Eiffel Tower. And all the fairs to follow were made in its image.

Chicago at the end of the ninteenth century was a city of unbounded creative energy, a city that seemed able to accomplish anything. No one could have predicted it, except perhaps Chicagoans themselves. After all, it was as recently as 1871 — 22 years before the fair — that a Great Fire swept through the city and effectively erased it from the Earth. But shortly afterwards, the Chicago Tribune editor wrote “CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN,” and sure enough, it did. By 1893, Chicago had the most modern downtown of any city, and had become the World’s first city of Skyscrapers. It had a host of cultural attractions, including a symphony and art museum. And it was a leader in the field of business, with Pullman railcars, Armour meat processing and packaging, Marshall Field’s department stores, Sears mail order catalogues, McCormick reapers. Chicago had built itself up from nothing to become a near rival to New York.

When Chicago was selected to host the Columbian Exposition, East Coast papers collectively dismissed the fair to be as a disaster. But when it was finally unveiled, a joint effort between Chicago and East Coast architects, the fair could no longer be dismissed: it was something more grand than anyone could have imagined. Its great, classically styled buildings and formal plan was so admired it became the template, not just for fairs to come, but for capitals and cultural centers in cities all over the nation. When the buildings were lit, spectacularly, with electric lights using Tesla and Westinghouse’s AC current, it proved AC’s superiority to Edison’s DC, and this grand test proved so successful it paved the way for electric lighting all over the globe, and put to rest the debate over which was better, much to Edison’s chagrin.

Nations from all over the World participated in the Exposition, tourists from all over the World filed in to see the sights. The 1893 World’s Fair was, in many ways, a miniature replica of the World itself: a snapshot of the time, not only its great mechanical and industrial achievements, but also its world view, the division of nations between the “civilized” and the “savage,” the struggle of Women to have a more prominent place, leading to having their own building on the grounds, the struggle of blacks to have their place as well, leading to very little at all. To wander the streets and halls of the Columbian Exposition is to see for a moment the World as it was, as the sponsors thought it should be, to see the energy, the excitement, the naivety, the hope, that was the Gilded Age.

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