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A look back at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897

The six-month celebration featured theme days, parades, and exhibits recognizing the state’s leading industries.

Tennessee Centennial

A birds-eye view of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. | Photo via Tennessee State Library and Archives

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Picture this: It’s May 1, 1897 in Nashville. You look around and see gondolas on Lake Watauga, a giant seesaw, and a full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

Over 700 miles away at the White House, President William McKinley presses a button that, via telegraph wire, fires a cannon and opens the gates to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Then, exposition president J.W. Thomas utters the words, “I now proclaim the Tennessee Centennial Exposition open to the world.”

For the next six months, nearly two million people would visit what is now Centennial Park to celebrate 100 years of statehood. The event featured theme days, parades, and exhibits recognizing the state’s leading industries of agriculture, commerce, machinery, and transportation.

Inspired by the success of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, Tennessee set out to establish nearly 100 structures on the grounds, including replicas of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the Parthenon. There was also a midway area with games and rides known as Vanity Fair.

The Parthenon

Constructed as a reflection of Nashville’s nickname “Athens of the South,” the full-scale structure housed 1,200 pieces of artwork and sculptures from around the world and is the only replica still standing today (rebuilt in 1931 with permanent materials).

Tennessee Centennial Ride

Imagine hopping into a car with 20 other people and flying 200+ ft in the air. This giant steel seesaw was invented by a Nashville company + cost 20 cents for the first ride.

Rialto Bridge across Lake Watauga

Lake Watauga, a small artificial lake created for the exposition, offered gondola rides in the heart of Centennial Park.

Memphis-Shelby Co. Building

The exposition’s Memphis-Shelby County building was modeled after the Great Pyramid of Cheops (also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza) because of the city’s connection to Memphis, Egypt.

Chute at Vanity Fair

The waterslide was located at the highest point in the park and cost 10 cents per ride.

Electric Fountain

This electric fountain by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti lit up the park at night. Moretti later created Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world located in Birmingham, AL.

Fun fact: The Parthenon hosts weekly outdoor walking tours highlighting the 1897 Exposition. After the tour, visit “Centennial Exposition Gallery,” a permanent indoor exhibit located on Level 1.

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