1876 — The Centennial

Philadelphia Centennial - AI Stock Photo

This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.

Modern America—mechanical America as we know it, with machinery and devices to facilitate practically every action in life, is a matter of evolution. Generally founded on theories, discoveries and inventions of earlier date, the advances in all fields began to show definite form and practicability between the years 1860 and 1876. These advances were not confined to America, but were general all over the world. In fact, there is something very suggestive of telepathy in the number of men, widely separated and entirely out of communication, who worked at the same things at one time.

In the United States the West flamed with conflict between the ever-spreading white settlers and the Indians. There was little law but the six-guns in the towns and the worst and sometimes the best elements of the disbanded Union and Confederate forces, unable to endure the monotonies of normal life after five years of demoralizing war, found there an outlet for their energies. It was the day of Jesse James, John Anderson, the Dalton Boys and other “bad men”—of Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack and the frontier heroes. The South emerged painfully and often bloodily from the Reconstruction. The troubles of paper money, of the great “Black Friday” of ’69, of constant political brawls and scandals, terminating in the impeachment of President Johnson, kept the East in turmoil. In Cuba, at our very doors, a bitter insurrection raged year after year. In Europe, Bismarck embarked on his wars against Austria and Denmark, and finally in a titanic struggle with France, established the German Empire.

Throughout Southern and Southeastern Europe insurrection followed insurrection. Conflicts in various parts of the British Empire added to the confusion. Considering the existing wars, political changes, financial depressions, etc., the immense and far-reaching accomplishments of this decade and a half are truly amazing.

In 1863, Edison, still a boy, had made several important improvements in telegraph instruments. In 1864, even while the fields of Virginia ran crimson with blood, the open-hearth process of steel was developed. In the next ten years, steel production doubled itself seven times. Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill in Pittsburgh in 1876. In 1865, the year of the Appomattox surrender and the assassination of Lincoln, the first short stretch of pipe line was laid in the Allegheny River Valley. By 1875 more than eight million barrels of oil was pouring through this and other pipe lines. In 1869, the first chilled steel plow was invented—and many farmers refused to use it, claiming it “poisoned” the ground. Between 1854 and 1866, Cyrus Field, after heartbreaking failures and disappointments, laid the Atlantic Cable. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who conducted the negotiations, was roundly denounced by the New York Evening Post. James Gordon Bennett, famous editor of the New York Herald, ridiculed the purchase, calling it the beginning of a scheme for the annexation of Canada. The general attitude of the press was one of disapproval. But—from 1880 to 1935, Alaska yielded $400,000,000 in gold!

On May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven in the last rail completing the Pacific Railroad—and the continent was spanned.

New York and San Francisco became days instead of months apart. Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876. In 1844, Dr. Horace Wells, dentist, Hartford, Conn., had teeth painlessly extracted while under an anesthetic. Local anesthetics, ether and chloroform came into general use. Bell, Gray, Edison and half-a-dozen others were laboring at the telephone and Brush and his rivals were working on electric lights.

All this development work, naturally, sought a world audience. Philadelphia, which had printed the first daily newspaper in America, published the first magazine, established the first circulating library, founded the first corporate bank and the first medical college, built the first American warships, unfurled the first American flag, been the home of the first National Congress and the first Supreme Court of the United States—Philadelphia now afforded that world audience in the first international exposition held in the country, the Centennial, from May 10th to November 10th, 1876.

There have been wonderful fairs since the Centennial—Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia (the Sesqui-Centennial), San Francisco, New York, offering far greater and more highly perfected wonders, but no Fair or similar event has had so profound an influence on the nation as did the Centennial.

For the exhibits were new and the minds of those who examined them were fresh, impressionable and not surfeited with mechanical miracles. It was still a world empty of bicycles, automobiles, electric trolley-cars, airplanes, phonographs, radios, telephones.

One took a train, horse-car, bus, carriage—or walked. From start to finish, the Centennial was not only a success but an event. As a foretaste of what was to come, the Franklin Institute gave a brilliant exhibition of mechanical arts in the Fall of 1874. On New Year’s Day the Centennial Year was ushered in with a great celebration at Independence Hall, during which Mayor Stokley raised the old colonial flag.

The Federal Government refused financial aid to the Centennial, but made a loan of $1,500,000—every cent of which was repaid. Scores of buildings had been erected by various industries, states and countries, on a scale never before attempted for a Fair. Prominent among them were the Main Building; Machinery Hall, 1402 x 360 feet, cost $792,000; Memorial Hall, 365 x 210 feet, cost $1,500,000; Agricultural Hall, 826 x 540 feet, cost $1,600,000; Horticultural Hall, 383 x 193 feet, cost $251,937. Horticultural and Memorial Halls are still in use. Many of the statues and memorials erected still stand—notably the Catholic Temperance Fountain and the Civil War Monument.

There were 1200 exhibitors and 30,000 exhibits at the Fair. Prior to the opening, exhibits had arrived at the rate of seventy carloads a day. An early arrival was “Stonewall Jackson,” a 4500-pound bull from Missouri. From Cadiz, Spain, came 87 cases of exhibits and a full cargo arrived from Sweden. In Egyptian Hall over 6,000 catalogued articles were on display. In addition to other displays, British exhibits that arrived on the S. S. Pennsgrove were estimated to be worth 1,500,000—and claimed to be the richest cargo ever received in America from England. There was erected temporarily on the grounds the Statue of Liberty, by Bartholdi, 152 feet high, gift of the French people to the United States. It was afterwards permanently erected in New York harbor where it stands “enlightening the world.” A model of Paris attracted wide attention. Also a gigantic Krupp gun in Machinery Hall, which, by some chance, pointed directly at the French section. It was noted also that the eyes of Commodore Barry, on the Temperance Fountain, were fixed on the immense Union Jack on the British Government Building.

Among the millions visiting the Centennial were the Emperor and Empress of Brazil and a host of European royalty and notables. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston chartered a steamer to convey them to the Fair. On July 24th the Cincinnati Light Guards, thirty in number, reached the Fair and encamped on the grounds, having marched eight hundred miles.

Richard Wagner composed a grand march for the Centennial, his fee being $5,000.00 gold. One of the “instruments” was a park of artillery. In Machinery Hall, a chime of thirteen bells, representing the original States, was rung at sunrise, noon and sunset every day. A remarkable fireworks display featured Fourth of July at the Fair, in conjunction with a brilliant military pageant.

The Centennial was officially opened by President Grant when, at noon, on Wednesday, May 10, 1876, he started the great Corliss engine in Machinery Hall. Of all the thousands of exhibits, not even excluding Brush’s electric arc lights, this immense engine seemed most to fascinate the crowds and, indeed, to symbolize the Centennial. It furnished power for eighteen acres of machinery and was described as “almost noiseless.” It was 39 feet in height, and weighed 1,792,000 pounds. It drove eight miles of shafting. The flywheel was 30 feet in diameter. It developed 1500 h.p. and could be forced up to 2500 h.p. It had two walking-beams, weighing 22 tons each, two 40-inch cylinders and a 10-foot stroke. The crankshaft was 19 inches in diameter and 12 feet long; connecting rods were 24 feet long; piston rods, 6 ¼ inches in diameter. The platform was 55 feet in diameter, of polished plates, on a brick foundation. The inventor, patentee and builder was George H. Corliss, Providence, R. I.


Warren Webster was just thirteen years old at the time of the Centennial. Early one morning he and a chum, with all their savings in their pockets, set out for the Fair. They went by train to Camden, crossed the Delaware on the ferry and took a horse-car for the Grounds. Knowing his burning curiosity about everything, it may safely be assumed that very little of the Fair escaped him. A detail he mentioned in after years was having his shoes shined by a new electrical shoe-shining machine, automatically operated by inserting a nickel in the slot. He observed so much and absorbed so much that it took many days to assimilate it. The impression produced was both deep and lasting.

In after years he never referred to the Centennial without adding: “That was a wonderful exposition!” Warren Webster probably gazed long and wonderingly at the Corliss engine in Machinery Building, as did so many thousands of others—and at the immense boilers which gave it power. Little did he think that within a few short years steam heating throughout the world would bear the name of “Webster.”

* * *

In the year 1876, while the crowds sauntered through the Centennial Grounds and trains and steamships daily brought fresh quotas of visitors from all over the world, many memorable events were transpiring elsewhere.

On March 17th, the Black Hills gold rush began, re-enacting the days of ’49. This precipitated the great Indian uprising. On June 25th, General Custer attacked an Indian village of 2000 lodges on the Little Big Horn. He was met by a large force of Sioux under Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and he and his entire command of three hundred and five officers and men were killed to the last man.

On Friday and Saturday, August 11th and 12th, the Madeleine, of the New York Yacht Club, defeated the Countess of Dufferin to retain the Queen’s (America) Cup. Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, of Ohio, and William A. Wheeler, running on the Republican ticket, were elected President and Vice-President, respectively, but their election was not confirmed by the “Electoral Commission” until March, 1877.


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