The world was invited to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, but the Yukon almost didn’t get to attend.
The grand secretary of the Arctic Brotherhood in Seattle came up with the original idea in 1905, and it quickly caught on. Originally planned for the year 1907, the 10th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, the event was finally scheduled for 1909.
Since the Klondike wasn’t actually in Alaska, the organizers of the exposition conceded to add “Yukon” to its title. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce lobbied successfully to have “Pacific” added to emphasize the trade with the Orient.
Thus the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was born. The mayor of Seattle, R.A. Ballinger, invited Yukon Commissioner William McInnes, in October of 1905, to have the territory participate. A blue-ribbon advisory board was selected that included government officials, prominent businessmen and representatives from Whitehorse and Atlin.
In Dawson, the board of trade supported the idea and petitioned the territorial assembly for a grant of $25,000 to produce a Yukon display for the event. The request was referred by the commissioner to the federal minister of agriculture, Sidney A. Fisher, who opposed the idea of giving money to the Yukon for an exhibit in Seattle. Fisher expected loud protests from the members of Parliament from British Columbia. A Canadian pavilion, however, was funded by the federal government.
The Seattle fairground, when completed, was breathtaking. Consisting of a series of concentric avenues, at the core of which were a cluster of spectacular pavilions surrounding a beautifully landscaped avenue called the Cascade Court and the Rainier Vista. This boulevard was oriented to the southwest so that it captured the scenic distant profile of Mount Rainier.
A series of reflecting pools cascaded gently down toward the centrepiece of the fairground, the Arctic Circle, a large circular pool with a large fountain shooting skyward in its centre.
A network of appropriately named streets provided circulation throughout the fairground. The Cascade Court and Rainier Vista divided the fairground into two neat halves. Intersecting this boulevard, and dividing the grounds into four neat quadrants, was Yukon Avenue, which connected with Klondike Circle to the west and Nome Circle to the east.
Luzon and Bering Avenues formed an inner concentric ring, and Pacific Avenue a more remote outer ring. Washington, Union and Tanana Avenues radiated outward from the central plaza like spokes on a wheel. Other street names reflected the northern theme of the exposition.
Along the western perimeter of the grounds was the main entrance off Fifteenth Avenue. Immediately to the right of the entrance, paralleling Fifteenth to the south, was the midway named, appropriately, the North Pay Streak and the South Pay Streak. Along this avenue were the more frivolous and fun attractions, nearly two hundred of them, including a Ferris wheel, a photo parlour, the Chinese Village, the Japanese Village and the Pianotorium. Food outlets included the Main Gate Cafeteria, the Navy and Army Tea House, and my favourite – Michael’s Hot Roast Beef Sandwich Pavilion.
There were, in fact, so many attractions to visit that one would have to attend the Exposition for several days to take it all in.
The central feature of the exposition was the cluster of magnificent pavilions bankrolled by the United States, including a large pavilion showcasing Alaska. This central assemblage also included buildings for the federal government, the newly acquired territories of the Philippines and Hawaii, and various government departments. Each was brimming with proud displays of products and technology announcing America’s leadership in the 20th century.
One of the most tantalizing displays was to be found in the Alaskan pavilion. “A million and a quarter in pure, shining yellow gold!” proclaimed the newspapers. There were “dozens of gold bricks, larger than paving blocks.” At today’s price for gold, each of them would be valued at a cool $2.7 million. Above this glittering pyramid was a special rack presenting five of the largest nuggets ever found, including a massive lump weighing nearly 250 ounces. Around all of this was a frame of gold nuggets in bottles too numerous to count. Heaped in the bottom of the cage were more brightly shining nuggets.
To keep the hands of avarice away, the display was housed inside a double cage of steel bars. At night, the whole exhibit was lowered into an electrified vault beneath the floor. In addition, there were burglar alarms. The American newspapers explained that the nuggets and ingots came from the various gold camps in Alaska – Nome, Fairbanks and the Klondike! Placing the Klondike in Alaska was an offence often repeated during the exposition.
The fair opened officially on June 1, More than 80,000 people attended, though most of the pavilions were not yet completely finished. President Taft opened the fair from Washington D.C. by pressing a nugget-encrusted telegraph key. Set on a slab of Alaskan marble, the key was a gift from George Carmack, who staked the Discovery claim that started the Klondike Gold Rush. The 22 nuggets were from the first two pans of gravel he washed on Rabbit Creek, soon to be known around the world as Bonanza.
The golden key, as it was named, was used by seven presidents over the next 60 years to open many expensive public works. Fifty-three years after being pressed by Taft, Carmack’s key was used by President Kennedy to open Century 21, the Seattle World’s Fair.
But amidst all of the excitement and drama that embodied the event, the Yukon was hardly recognized at all. The Canadian pavilion, one of the smallest at the fair, was relegated to the far corner of the fairground in the third echelon along with the Good Roads Pavilion, Japan and the Grand Trunk Railroad.
Of all the pamphlets produced as souvenirs of the exposition, and the publicity generated by the newspapers, most ignored Canada’s presence in the event. If Canada was relegated to the nether regions of the expo, the Yukon was banished almost completely. It was originally to be mixed in as part of the general display.
The Yukon’s presence at the exposition became a struggle for identity, and the man who saved the Yukon from total anonymity was Arnold George. I’ll tell you how he did it in my column next week.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org