World’s Fair in Minnesota? That’s so yesterday

Passengers preparing to depart for a tour of the fairgrounds waterway, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Passengers preparing to depart for a tour of the fairgrounds waterway, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The news that civic leaders are mounting an effort to bring a World’s Fair to Minnesota in 2023 calls to mind similar aspirations of a century ago.

In the early 20th century, the area around today’s intersection of Como and Raymond avenues in St. Paul consisted of woods, water and pasture, the latter used by the dairy herds from the nearby St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

Between 1908 and 1909, the State Fair acquired 90 acres of this land, installed a new entrance gate at Como (then Langford Avenue) and Raymond and began dredging what was envisioned as a series of channels and lagoons stretching all the way to the new grandstand.

With gasoline-powered gondolas plying the waters, it was to be an attraction to rival the canals of Venice, the centerpiece of officials’ hopes of hosting a World’s Fair.

Unfortunately, it proved impossible to maintain the levels in the water features and within a few years they were filled in to create the Midway entertainment area.

But the dream didn’t die and business leaders were probably encouraged by the success of San Francisco’s widely acclaimed Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, a fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.

In 1919, several officials with the St. Paul Association, the predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce, announced that they hoped the fairgrounds would be the site of a World’s Fair in 1925.

St. Paul would not try to finance the project on its own, they cautioned, but would seek federal and state funds as well.

However, many businessmen who belonged to the association expressed serious reservations, pointing out that Chicago, Ill., St. Louis, Mo., and Buffalo, N.Y., which had financed earlier fairs, were still trying to pay off the losses incurred.

There is no indication that those plans went any further, but, as it has been observed, history has a way of repeating itself.

Roger Bergerson writes about history and community news regularly in the Park Bugle.

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