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  • Tedd Long

The Biggest Event to Never Happen in Toledo

The Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition

When I think about the major events that have been hosted in Toledo, a few come to mind. For me, in chronological order:

  • The Michigan vs. Notre Dame football game held at Armory Park in 1902

  • The King Wamba Carnival in 1909

  • The Dempsey-Willard prizefight at Bay View Park in July 1919

  • The U.S. Open held at Inverness in 1920, 1931, 1957, and 1979

  • The PGA Championship held at Inverness in 1986 and 1983, and

  • The PBA National Championships held at Imperial Lanes and Southwyck Lanes from 1981 through 2002.

That's a very impressive list of major happenings for a mid-sized city located in the heart of America's Midwest. Toledo can be proud of these events.

But what about the biggest event to never happen in Toledo? What major affair, scheduled to be hosted in the Glass City never happened? The image above is your first clue. I'm referring to the Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition. What's that? Only the biggest bash never happen in Toledo! This four-month long extravaganza would have been on par with any major World's Fair. In fact, the Donald G. Larson Collection on International Expositions and Fairs housed at Fresno State's Henry Madden Library, lists the Ohio Centennial as a World's Fair that never happened right along side other fairs that were planned but never held in cities like Los Angeles, Tokyo, Rome and Boston.

A World's Fair in Toledo?

The success of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition proved how a World's Fair could positively influence the reputation and economic vitality of a host city. It was the era of big, over-the-top fairs, when cities hosted months-long expositions as tourist draws—much like modern-day cities do when they host the winter and summer Olympics. Just as cities today often improve or redevelop property to host the Olympics, so did cities back then for these extravagant expositions. The idea of a World's Fair intrigued Toledo promoters enough to set off a few years of fanfare to convince the state of Ohio to hold a centennial exposition in Toledo. Not satisfied with just a state-wide celebration, the Toledo promoters reached out to Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to expand the party into a commemoration of the Northwest Territory.

So what was their pitch? Toledo promoters developed an impressive list of reasons why their city should host a World's Fair. First, they pointed out that Toledo was a great industrial center that outpaced most American cities in industrial growth in the 1890's. As The Blade wrote in November of 1897:

"Do we of Toledo realize we live in the most prosperous and progressive city of Ohio, and not only of Ohio but of this whole Middle West?" ~ The Blade

The February 20, 1898 Toledo Bee went even further in describing how "bright" and progressive Toledo was in a special supplement entitled, "The Lady of the Lakes."

"Toledo is rich, but it is a young man's town. It is the financial metropolis of the great Ohio oil fields, and the wealthiest and most enterprising oil men make Toledo their home. They are broad-minded, liberal, venturesome spirits who don't lay awake nights fretting for fear somebody will steal their money. They build fine houses and live to be happy. They are bold, liberal and public spirited. The successful manufactures and business men of Toledo are largely young men who have not reached that point in life where they think of nobody but themselves. That's why Toledo is a whole-souled, hospitable town where a stranger is quickly made to feel at home. We have the brightest business men, the brightest railroad managers, the brightest professional men and the happiest people in the state." ~ The Toledo Bee

After touting how prosperous and progressive Toledo was, Toledo boosters factored in accessibility. Toledo's status as a great railroad center was key to this argument. At the time, Toledo was second only to Chicago in the number of railroads entering the city. And then there was our location...Toledo was much more centrally located to the rest of the great Midwest than any other city.

They also argued that an Ohio Centennial celebration, on its own, would be too small an idea for a World's Fair. They pointed to previous and planned World's Fair celebrations with regional themes built around the discovery of the new world, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Declaration of Independence. Celebrating Ohio's centennial was nice but commemorating the Northwest Territory was much more on par with other World's Fair success stories. So, what better place in Ohio was there to host a Northwest Territory celebration? The Toledo area was home to the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, the final battle of the Northwest Indian War, the struggle between Native American tribes affiliated with the Western Confederacy and the British, against the United States for control of the Northwest Territory. Promoters noted that since Wayne's great victory at Fallen Timbers opened the way for the settlement of the Northwest Territory and the westward expansion of the United States, there was no better place to celebrate the Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition than Toledo, Ohio.

Finally, the Toledo backers hung their hats on the idea that Toledo had the best venue to host the event: Bay View Park.

A map showing the design of the 200-acre Bay View Park location for the exposition.

Plans called for transforming Bay View into a world-class venue for the event. According to Toledo boosters, Bay View's islands, lagoons, dock facilities and its convenient connection to streetcars (and downtown Toledo) made it the perfect location.

Besides having to persuade everyone on the merits of hosting the exposition in Toledo, there was one more hurdle to jump. Toledo organizers wanted to host the Centennial Exposition in 1902 to get ahead of any potential conflict or competition with the St. Louis World's Fair planned for 1903 (and held in 1904). They rationalized the earlier start by arguing that Ohio entered statehood when it arrived at a constitution in late 1802 - even if its legislature hadn't begun until 1803.

In November 1897, after months of promoting their plan, the Toledo Exposition Committee provided a formal application to the State Centennial Commission, a newly minted authority created by the Ohio Legislature in 1896. Once they delivered their formal proposal, the Toledo promoters got busy! They bombarded the legislature with communications touting the benefits of hosting the event in Toledo. They went as far as to host state lawmakers and their families on an all-expense-paid trip to Toledo to show them just how great Toledo was and demonstrate how easy it was to get in and out of town via the multiple railroads.

The vision and perseverance of the Toledo backers paid off on April 20, 1898 when state legislators named Toledo as Ohio's Centennial City. There were a few caveats. First, the state did not pledge any money toward a centennial exposition. Second, any centennial celebration would have to be held in 1903 instead of 1902.

So What Happened?

Unfortunately, just when it began to look like the Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition was a sure thing for Toledo, the planning began to snowball, the promoters got a bit too greedy, and Republican politics got in the way.

Since the state did not offer to help pay for the exposition when they named Toledo as Ohio's Centennial City, Toledo promoters formed the Ohio Centennial Company with the mission to sell $500,000 worth of stock to underwrite the exposition. At the same time, the city of Toledo, betting on the exposition as a sure thing, began spending $150,000 to dredge Maumee Bay and improve Bay View Park for what many hoped would be the world's greatest fair. The city of Toledo's gamble to improve Bay View Park began to look like a sure bet on March 4, 1899, when Congress passed an act to allocate $500,000, as long as the Centennial Company was successful in raising its $500,000 goal and the Ohio legislature chipped in $500,000. A few days earlier, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin all voted to take part in the Northwest Territory Exposition.

Unfortunately, as the likelihood of Toledo hosting a World's Fair began to look more probable, the planning process quickly got out of hand as the dreams for the event grew bigger and more outrageous. The Toledo "Centennial Boomers" talked about offering balloon ferry rides across the Maumee River and building a terraced, pyramid-shaped exposition center surrounded by buildings in the motif of eastern mosques. The image below is an artist's drawing of John Gunckel's suggestion for the Fisheries Exhibit. Yes, he was serious. Simply put, the event was snowballing into an extravagant spectacle!

In an essay for Volume 25, Issue 4 of the Northwest Ohio Quarterly, local historian Randolph C. Downes wrote: "It would be endless to enumerate the many castles in air that Toledoans built in 1899 and 1900 for the Ohio Centennial of 1903." Downes goes on to describe how planners wanted a grand layout that featured "the enthroned Centennial goddess presiding over the states of the Old Northwest and over a union of Agriculture and Manufacture." Other grandiose intentions included...

  • An education Parthenon that would be a permanent museum that The Blade described as "a great repository to depict the growth of the arts and sciences of the Old Northwest."

  • A reenactment of the battle of San Juan "by a professional fireworks company" and 250 veterans of the Spanish American War.

  • A Convention Hall to hold the National Republican and Democratic Presidential Nominating Conventions of 1904.

  • A building made entirely of glass.

  • A ten-foot high, frog-shaped fountain.

  • A Roman-style gateway.

  • A 325-feet high tower with an "endless chain elevator" to take passengers to the top platform.

  • An elevated railroad.

Toledo planners were bubbling with pride and confidence. The City Park Board planned a series of parks throughout the city connected by a grand boulevard leading into the exposition. Swan Creek and the Ottawa River were to be dredged in order to make Toledo another "Manhattan Island open to shipping throughout almost its whole perimeter." Civic pride was riding high when Turkey Foot Rock was " borrowed" from Maumee tor placement in Bay View Park, but had to be returned when the citizens of Maumee objected.

In early 1900, Toledo's Centennial Company announced it had met its $500,000 goal and it wanted the state of Ohio to pony up so Federal money could be appropriated. That's when a few people got greedy and politics raised its ugly head.

A Toledo Traction Company postcard promoting Toledo or "Frogtown" as the home of the Ohio Centennial.

Toledoans were so confident of the success of their Centennial party, they sent their State Representative, Charles P. Griffin, to Columbus to insist that the state double its contribution to $1 million. Griffin successfully convinced the Ohio House to double down, but the state Senate would only agree to $750,000. Representative Griffin and other Toledo leaders, including Mayor Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones, insisted on $1 million or nothing.

This is where things got ugly. The new governor, George Nash, was a political rival of Representative Griffin. He convinced state lawmakers to offer Toledo only $500,000. When Toledo leaders balked again, the legislature left Columbus without appropriating any money for Toledo's World's Fair. After years of planning, selling and counting hordes of imaginary money, the Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition was a bust.

Toledo planners did not give up without a fight. They tried an end run to access the initial $500,000 offered by the state legislature in earlier bills. To test the waters, an invoice for expenses was sent to Columbus. When it was denied, Toledo leaders asked the state Supreme Court to intervene but the court refused. Mayor Jones and other Toledo boosters asked the governor to call a special legislative session to reconsider the state's contribution because of the "extraordinary occasion." The governor's response was sharp and to the point:

Gentlemen, who seemed to be promoters of the Centennial Exposition during the session of the general assembly, thought that they knew better what the state could afford to give, and ought to give, than did the officers who were placed in charge of her financial affairs. They insisted that they would have a million dollars or nothing. They were taken at their word and got nothing. I do not think that their mistake is an "extraordinary occasion" which justified me in calling the general assembly together." ~ Ohio Governor George K. Nash

And just like that, the Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition was officially no more. By 1901, after admitting it had raised only $24,000 in cash and $294,000 in pledges, the Toledo Centennial Company dissolved. When the Ohio legislature returned to Columbus in 1902, it allocated a measly $10,000 for a low-key Ohio Centennial celebration in Chillicothe, Ohio's first capital.

And that's the story of the biggest event to never happen in Toledo.


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