History of the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition

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This button is from the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition.


By the turn of the 20th century, the city of Charleston’s economy faced collapse. The immediate decades in Charleston after the Reconstruction Era saw a heavy decline in its industries such as phosphate mining. In addition, the great Charleston Earthquake of 1886 and other natural disasters made the Charleston market a great risk to trade, resulting in many goods no longer being transported via The Holy City’s harbors. Charleston’s volume of trade ultimately declined from $98.5 million during 1890-91, to only $29.5 million by the turn of the 20th century (Fraser Jr., 1989).

Inspired by previous fairs held in southern cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, prominent citizens within Charleston planned an exposition to attract national and worldwide attention to Charleston's trading opportunities. Led by captain Frederick W. Wagner, a wealthy wholesale grocer, plans began in 1900 for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition, held from December 1901, until June 1902.

The Charleston Exposition

The South Carolina Interstate and West Indian exposition, also known as the Charleston exposition, was created on a 185-acre site in the western portion of Charleston. Key to the exposition’s location and plans was the drawing of attention to the newly rebuilt Charleston harbor, illustrating the city’s readiness for increased trade, in particular the burgeoning West Indies trade industry.  The ultimate hope for the Charleston Exposition’s committee would be the reestablishment of Charleston’s port to its former prominent position within the South (Harvey, 1997).

The exposition’s buildings were designed to display the most recent technology for machinery, transportation, agriculture, and more. The exposition’s “Nature” area was located on old farmland near the Ashley River, and comprised the Art Building, the Negro Building, the Woman’s Building, and the numerous buildings built by participating states. The “Art” area was located to the southeast, on the former Washington Race Course grounds (Harvey, 1997).  Within this section was the main feature of the Charleston Exposition: The Cotton Palace, a 350-foot long building with a 75-foot tall dome. Its purpose was to highlight all aspects of cotton and its use, increasing interest in Charleston’s cotton industry (Fraser Jr., 1989). Other prominent buildings in this area were the Palace of Commerce and the Palace of Agriculture. These buildings were designed as representatives of the Exposition’s entire image, and it is estimated that over 3,000,000 feet of lumber went into building the eventual court of great palaces on site; the alabaster finish on these grand buildings gave the Charleston Exposition its Nickname “The Ivory City” (Harvey, 1997). Additional features included a zoo, and an auditorium that seated 6,000 people. The midway had a carnival with thrill rides and an Eskimo village, and the Miniature Railway company transported visitors throughout the Charleston Exposition’s various sites via miniature locomotive and cars (E.C.G, 1902).

Special events occurred throughout the exposition, such as displaying the Liberty Bell sent to Charleston from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Twenty states in total participated in the exposition, and to enhance the Charleston Exposition’s connection to the West Indies, special exhibits were devoted to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. Notable figures attended the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition, including Mark Twain and President Theodore Roosevelt (Leon, 1985). The festival’s largest attendance day was on Wagener’s Day, May 22, 1902 with 25,000 visitors. This day was a special celebration of Captain F.W. Wagener, President of the Expo Company, and a vital reason behind the Charleston Exposition’s existence (Harvey, 1997).

Charleston After the Exposition

In the end, Charleston’s attempt at a World Fair-level exposition to showcase its prominence and trade capabilities failed, with only 674, 086 visitors attending. Funding issues plagued the exposition since its inception, and the unusually brutal winter of 1901 played a part in keeping attendance low (Fraser Jr., 1989). Soon after the exposition’s end, buildings were removed, with materials and parts being sold to help pay off accumulated debts. The Charleston Exposition Company, which created the exposition, went bankrupt.

A portion of the exposition’s land was bought by the City of Charleston, which created Hampton Park. Inside the park is the bandstand from the Charleston Exposition, though it has been removed from its original spot and rebuilt. Portions of the exposition’s zoo, after removal, were sent across the Ashley River to the Charles Towne Landing site, owned by The State of South Carolina (Harvey, 1997).

In 1919 the State of South Carolina obtained the western portion of the former Charleston Exposition site, which became the new campus for today’s Citadel.

Additional Information:

E. C. G. (1902). The Fine Arts at Charleston Exposition. Brush and Pencil, 9(4), 249-250. doi:10.2307/25505711

Fraser Jr, W.J. (1989). Charleston! Charleston! The history of a southern city. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, SC

Harvey, B. (1997). Architecture for the Future at the Charleston Exposition, 1901-1902. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, 7, 115-130. doi:10.2307/3514388

LEON, P. (1985). Mark Twain at the Charleston Exposition. Mark Twain Journal, 23(1), 4-7. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/41641257