The World’s Fair That Never Was

by Cole Thompson

Promotional material for 1883 World's Fair in Inwood, New York In 1883 Inwood was to play host to the World’s Fair, a dream that never materialized due to haphazard planning, dissension and general lack of support.

As early as December 10, 1880 a New York Times headline screamed, “Inwood as the Fair Site.” The article cited “communication” and “the character of the place” as key reasons for Inwood’s selection.

1883 Inwood World's Fair promotional sketch

1883 World's Fair promotional sketch

Initially, the Exposition’s exploratory committee met their selection with “unbridled satisfaction”. According to the Times article, “this feeling sprang, not simply from the fact that the assault upon Central Park had been successfully repelled, but also from a conviction that Inwood is, in all respects, the most feasible site yet proposed.”

One of the Fair’s strongest advocates was New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Vice-President James Rutter. Rutter believed Inwood’s access to key waterways, and more to the point, railroads made the area a much better choice than Central Park.

"Birds eye view" of intended 1883 Inwood World's Fair site

"Birds eye view" of intended 1883 Inwood World's Fair site

Said Rutter, “the Inwood site is easily accessible from all points. It is only 53 minutes’ ride by the elevated road from Rector Street, and the road will reach there long before the opening of the Fair.”

Even Isaac Dyckman, a descendant of the Dutch family who initially settled Inwood as early as 1630, joined in on the pitch. According to the Times, the 65-year-old Dyckman, “skipped nimbly over the ground, pointing out its prominent features, and narrating stories of the Revolutionary war.” Dyckman’s rich tapestry of Inwood lore included cannon balls, loyalists, patriots, fields “literally sown with lead” and of course real estate.

Ulysses S. GrantBehind the scenes the Fair added a marquis name to its helm; none other than General Ulysses S. Grant. A man without a home since his days in the White House, Grant now filled his hours planning a world expo from his suite in a Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Confident that the location of the Fair was a done deal, real estate speculators began to descend on the area. Inwood at the time was relatively undeveloped. But a Fair meant roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure. Surely property values would skyrocket.

Map of 1883 World's Fair grounds planned for Inwood, New York City.

Map of 1883 Fair grounds

But, by early March of 1881, there were beginning to be grave doubts the Fair would be held at all. Four million dollars needed to be raised for the buildings alone, but the commission couldn’t seem to raise even a million dollars to get the project off the ground.

Map of 1883 World's Fair grounds planned for Inwood, New York City. By late March of 1881, disaster struck. General Grant formally resigned his Presidency of the World’s Fair Commission and left the country for Mexico City. Grant wished the commission luck and, in some respect, blamed the venue itself on his decision to jump ship. Said Grant, “…so much opposition has been manifested by citizens to Inwood, the question of the site should be left open…I have no doubt that the Fair would be a success if held in Central Park, but the people are prejudiced against the use of their pleasure grounds, and their prejudices should be respected.”

Ulysses S. GrantA friend told the press, “Grant and I had a long talk over the matter across the way in his son’s office, and we both arrived at the conclusion that the people of New York don’t want a World’s Fair.”
Without Grant’s big name support the Fair was doomed.

Leaderless, the planned Expo floundered for months before eventually being abandoned.
According to Exposition Commissioner William H. Strong, the 1883 Fair was fatally flawed from its inception and cited “the choice of Inwood as the cardinal mistake of the commission.”

There would be no World’s Fair that year. It was a black eye for New York as well as the nation.

Inwood was again considered as the site of 1892 World’s Fair, but lost out to Central Park.

World's Fair Article from The Manufacturer and Builder, 1881. (Click to enlarge)

(Special thanks to Inwood resident and collector Don Rice for allowing me to use the maps and plans associated with the ill fated World’s Fair of 1883. While the facts themselves are fascinating the sketches brought this history to life. Many thanks Don.)


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole Clark December 23, 2008 at 10:23 pm

First rate article, Cole! The illustrations are awesome. Nicole

Cole Thompson December 23, 2008 at 10:31 pm

Thank you Nicole. I agree. Seeing the illustrations for the first time was like opening a time capsule.

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