A look back at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897

Picture this: It’s May 1, 1897 in Nashville. You look around and see gondolas on Lake Watauga, a 208 ft. tall seesaw + 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 6 months, nearly 2 million people would come together at what is now Centennial Park to celebrate 100 years of statehood. The celebration featured themed days, parades, and exhibits recognizing the state’s leading industries of agriculture, commerce, machinery + 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.

Now let’s fast forward 124 years. On June 1, Tennessee will kick off a year-long celebration commemorating 225 years of statehood, only this time without quite as much fanfare. As we celebrate another year older, let’s look back at some of the sights and sounds of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

The Parthenon

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

Tennessee Centennial Ride

Imagine hopping into a car with 20 other people and flying 200+ feet 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 water slide was located at the highest point in the park + 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, Alabama.

Gorman & Boone’s Arena of Wild and Trained Animals

The Gorman & Boone’s Arena of Wild and Trained Animals served as an entertainment hub + featured shows with lions, monkeys, and other exotic animals.