Transportation Innovations at the St. Louis World’s Fair

Map of the St. Louis World’s Fair. From Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Papers, Series 3, Box 11.

On April 30th, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, officially opened its gates to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the historic Louisiana Purchase. Over the six months of the fair, over 19.7 million people from more than 60 countries would attend the event, where they would discover fascinating exhibits about different cultures, foods, and new innovations in technology.

The St. Louis Car Company and the Palace of Transportation

The fair grounds were over 1,200 acres and contained 1500 buildings housing a wide range of exhibits. One of the more popular exhibits was in the Palace of Transportation, which introduced fair-goers to new modes of transportation, many of which were built by St. Louis’ own St. Louis Car Company.

A photo of the Palace of Transportation from Sights, Scenes, and Wonders at the World’s Fair by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company. Part of the Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Papers, Series 3, Box 11

The Palace of Transportation itself was located around where the Forest Park golf course now is. It took up 15 acres and, like many of the structures at the fair, was built out of a mixture of plaster of Paris and hemp fibers on a wood frame. These buildings were meant to be temporary, and in fact had to be repaired several times throughout the duration of the fair as they deteriorated and developed holes.

Prominently displayed in the fantastic Transportation Palace were a number of exhibits from the now-defunct St. Louis Car Company, which built street cars, trolleys, buses, and the occasional personal automobile to be shipped all over the world. Above is a book of their exhibit at the World Fair, complete with photographs of their vehicles and the manufacturing process. The pages below show a streetcar being erected in their warehouses.

Photos of a St. Louis Car Company street car being constructed. From St. Louis Car Co. at the Universal Exposition, St. Louis, U.S.A., 1904.

New Innovations in Transportation

The average fair-goer in 1904 would have been impressed with the revolutions in transportation that the fair exhibited. John Brisben Walker, a writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine’s special edition on the World Fair, said of the transportation exhibit in St. Louis, “there has been more change in the most important forms of transportation in the eleven years which followed the Exposition of Chicago than in the previous four thousand” (523).

One of the most surprising changes Walker notes is the introduction of the personal automobile. While Walker notes that he did not see a single car at the Exposition of Chicago eleven years before, the transportation exhibit at St. Louis had over 140 different models of personal automobile. Below is a picture of an early automobile built by the St. Louis car company being test-run by a female motorist.

A photo of an early model of the personal automobile constructed by the St. Louis Car Company. From the Washington University Local History Archives, St. Louis Car Company.

Another innovation in transportation technology was the electric streetcar, which was still fairly novel at the time of the fair, having only been invented in 1888. Walker notes in his article for Cosmopolitan how comfortable these electric cars had become in the eleven years since the Chicago fair. The St. Louis Car Company had their electric streetcar on display outside the Palace of Electricity. It and some of the company’s other car on display at the fair are pictured on the pages below.

Two pages from St. Louis Car Co. at the Universal Exposition, St. Louis, U.S.A., 1904 showing models of their streetcars that were on view at the World Fair.

Further Research

For more information on the St. Louis Car Company, which operated in St Louis from 1887 to 1977, check out a detailed description of the collection here. If you are interested in researching more about the St. Louis World Fair, you can start by looking at the Washington University Archives, St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair Collection, or ask one of the librarians at Special Collections for help.

 

Sources

Walker, John Brisben. “Transportation in 1904.” The Cosmopolitan, Sept. 1904, pp.523-528.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.