For a modest admission price of just thirty cents, Chicagoans of all ages were guaranteed a fun and fact-filled history lesson, with excitement and thrills galore, in the warm and languid summer days of 1948 amid fifty acres of park district land in Burnham Park along the city’s sprawling south lakefront. The Railroad Fair, a planned exhibition, celebrated Chicago’s centenary of the arrival of its first steam locomotive, the “Pioneer,” in 1848. The importance of that pivotal event for the future growth and development of the modern city of Chicago cannot be under-estimated, for it ushered in the era of transcontinental travel linking up the East with the West and bringing to our lakefront city in the coming decades land speculators, entrepreneurs, promoters, hustlers, immigrant families, and ordinary men and women daring to dream. A century later, on July 20, 1948, the Chicago Railroad Fair threw open its gates with a ring-a-ding-ding exuberance unmatched since the days of the two Worlds’ Fairs (1893, 1933).
Promoters promised “enough railroading equipment to satisfy a trainload of little boys,” plus many other notable feature attractions, forty-five exhibits and sideshows for young and old alike spread across a mile-long promenade from 20th to 30th streets. The nation’s railroads were eager to showcase their history and tout their bragging rights at the mid-point of the twentieth century—a time when the passenger airlines were an expensive, if not uncertain, novelty in the country beyond the means of the average commuter and vacationer. The train was still the best and most reliable way to go, or so it seemed, and the great Railroad Fair expressed the optimistic belief that things would go in this way forever more. The Santa Fe line constructed a southwestern motif with a six-foot cactus and pueblos represented by six native tribes garbed in ceremonial raiment. A rodeo ring was set up to accommodate an anticipated one thousand spectators an hour.
Who could have foreseen at the time that this fair would soon be followed by the apocalyptic demise of the American passenger rail system?
Construction crews labored around the clock in the early spring months applying the finishing touches to a five-thousand-seat grandstand where visitors could observe the fair’s main attraction: the hour-and-a-half long “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant of two hundred twenty costumed actors recreating scenes from American history and railroading adventures across a four-hundred-fifty-foot-wide stage.
A dude ranch allowed visitors to witness cowboys performing rope tricks and a replica Sun Valley complete with an ice-skating rink added to the flavor of the central and overlying theme of western expansion made possible by the railroads.
A narrow-gauge railroad mining train called the “Crazy Horse” conveyed visitors to all of the major exhibits within the confines of the fair, including a replica of the Chicago and Northwestern’s (CNW) first city depot. Throughout the day, a small movie theater aired classic railroad-themed films, including “Union Pacific” and the “Harvey Girls.”
Famous old and original steam, diesel, and electric locomotives, and passenger cars of yesteryear were on prominent display, including the sleek and magnificent “Pioneer Zephyr,” the “Pioneer” (now on permanent exhibit at the Chicago History Museum), the “Empire Express No. 999,” and replicas of older rolling stock, including the “Tom Thumb” and the “John Bull.” Mary Brady Jones—the widow of the legendary railroad hero “Casey Jones” (John Luther Jones, 1863-1900), immortalized in a popular ballad of the day following his untimely death in the disastrous wreck of the old “Cannonball Express”—was on hand to answer questions and accept the good wishes of the visitors and promoters.
This “century of progress” commemoration of one hundred years of hauling people and freight across the country was vigorously promoted by a consortium of thirty-eight of the nation’s largest commercial and industrial lines as a “world’s fair of railroading.” They could only look to a shaky and uncertain future with purposeful vision, confidence, and optimism. Otherwise, why would they have invested this much time and monetary resources to an event one might reasonably describe as a costly marketing and public relations gamble?
The idea for this Railroad Fair did not spring from the fertile mind of Walt Disney himself, but from one F.V. Koval, assistant to the president of the Chicago and Northwestern line, successor railroad to the old Galena and Chicago Union line, the first railroad constructed out of Chicago with the “Pioneer” completing its first run on October 10, 1848. William B. Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor, was the driving force behind the organization of the CNW.
The Chicago City Council and Mayor Martin Kennelly enthusiastically endorsed plans for The Chicago Railroad Fair: A Century on Wheels, with formal approval coming from the Chicago Association of Commerce, meeting in closed-door session at the old LaSalle Hotel on February 2, 1948. The city’s big-wigs unanimously chose Lenox R. Lohr, president of the Museum of Science and Industry, to head the planning committee. Lohr, who previously oversaw the Century of Progress program as general manager, took a leave of absence from his museum duties to superintend this latest lakefront extravaganza.
Thereafter it was a race against time to build and complete the massive fairgrounds by opening day. Forty contractors and their work crews had only four-and-a-half months to fit out the entire campus and provide underground sewage, water, and light with fencing, walkways, and temporary buildings. By the time July approached, it had become the city’s most ambitious undertaking since the construction of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.
It was hardly coincidental that this under-utilized site that had gone fallow in the fifteen years following “The Century” should be chosen to host the fair. The time was right for a summertime extravaganza of this magnitude. Chicago was in the mood for a party of this size and scale. It had come through the lean days of breadlines and depression and the devastating war that was to follow. There had not been a new skyscraper built in the central business district since the early nineteen thirties. A housing shortage made it hard for returning G.I.’s to settle in to post-war living. The skies were a grimy haze of industrial pollution, co-mingling the objectionable smells of the stockyards and steel yards, and the Cubs and White Sox were well on their way to finishing the 1948 season dead last. The Railroad Fair swept us away from those miseries, if only for a few hours a day.
And it was a big hit from day one. First week’s attendance topped three hundred fifty thousand. By early September, more than one-and-a-half million passed through the main gates on 23rd Street. Encouraged by the results, the committee pushed back the scheduled closing date of September 6th, to the end of the month. “Most gratifying feature of the fair is the fact that more than sixty percent of the attendance has come from beyond the one-hundred-mile radius of Chicago,” beamed Lohr.
Walt Disney, impresario of movie magic, was one of its most enthusiastic spectators. With animator Ward Kimball, Disney visited the Railroad Fair after a hasty inspection of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Disney came away with an idea for a theme park of his own, one based on a pleasing mix of the science, commerce, and history he had observed in the Midwest in a self-contained land parcel out in Anaheim, California. In 1955, the Chicago-born showman opened Disneyland with a tip of the cap to the Railroad Fair of 1948.
There would be one last Railroad Fair a year later. Lenox Lohr and his team parlayed their 1948 success by adding the Cypress Gardens water show and a new-fangled invention called the Vitarama, a slide-projection system projecting multiple nine-foot high, six-and-a-half-foot wide images giving a three-dimensional look inside a large hall constructed for that purpose. The fair of 1949 ended its record-run of two-and-a-half million visitors on October 2. Despite hopeful predictions for a bigger and better fair in 1950, Chicago’s railroad show ended a glorious two-year run, never to return.
The fair represented a high-water mark in the age of the iron horse, and the beginning of a slow but sentimental farewell to a magnificent era of leisurely passenger travel soon to expire in a country more and more on the go. The relentless expansion of the commercial airline industry and the construction of the interstate highway system closed out a time and place many of us still cherish.
By 1971, several of Chicago’s ornate and glamorous old train stations had fallen to the wrecking ball and the legendary trains bearing the names “20th Century Limited,” the “Fast Flying Virginian,” the “Shoreland 400,” and “The Super Chief” were relics of a by-gone era of travel. Who could have foreseen at the time that this fair would soon be followed by the apocalyptic demise of the American passenger rail system?
In place of the Railroad Fair in 1950, the Chicago Tribune, with the backing of its publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick, threw its resources behind an all-purpose “Chicago Fair.” Not surprisingly, attendance dropped off to 1.7 million, and the event was canceled after that first year. Today, no one remembers the Chicago Fair, but instead a different type of fair of more humble origin and held on a diminished scale. Nowadays, it is familiar to nearly everyone who passed through the primary grades and high school.
Perhaps inspired by the Chicago Fair, but then again maybe not, Carl Schurz High School teacher Robert Schwachtgen came up with a brilliant and motivational idea for the first Chicago Public School “science fair” in 1951. His first competitive event, held in the Museum of Science and Industry, featured just one hundred exhibits with meager prizes offered to the winners.
Within five years nearly every school-age child was busy tinkering in the garage or basement with Dad and Mom to perfect their own miraculous gadget of the scientific age that might win them fame and fortune in Chicago’s fabled “century of progress.”