Editor's note: This piece originally was published on April 24, 2005, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.
It seemed like a great idea at the time.
Omaha had just wrapped up its phenomenally successful 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, a World's Fair-caliber celebration of culture and technology that impressed nearly 2 million visitors with this young city's progressive energy.
With its conclusion, the exposition's governing board began arrangements for demolition of all the buildings. Then came the second thoughts. Some civic leaders couldn't stomach the notion of tearing down the Grand Court – a six-block stretch of extravagant building facades around a reflecting pool – after a single season's use.
Buildings were already being dismantled when a group of investors hastily organized to promote another world-class exposition at the Trans-Mississippi site. Within weeks of the Trans-Mississippi's glorious conclusion, Omaha was in the exposition business all over again.
Scheduled for July 1 to Nov. 1, the Greater America Exposition of 1899 would offer visitors their first glimpse of the people and lifestyles in the territories recently acquired as a result of the Spanish-American War.
The Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba and Puerto Rico would be presented in lavish displays. So would the latest achievements in agriculture, manufacturing, science and the arts. Organizers also decided to repeat the hugely popular gathering of Indian tribes from the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
Agents for the Greater America Exposition set out for the island territories in search of performers and exhibits. Fund raising and advertising began in earnest.
"Almost immediately, things started to go wrong, " said Dave Wells, a local history buff and member of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Historical Association. "Towns near Omaha complained that the Trans-Miss had siphoned away local retail traffic, and they threatened to boycott Omaha wholesalers in 1899. This turned the businesses in Jobbers Canyon against the project."
Congressional funding for Indian participation in the second expo passed in the Senate and sailed through the House until two Nebraska congressmen came out against it, effectively killing the bill.
Greater America boosters didn't have time to worry about these setbacks. They were too busy ramping up the promotional campaign. Responses were promising.
President McKinley, Col. Teddy Roosevelt, Adm. George Dewey and other dignitaries planned to attend. John Philip Sousa wanted to participate in the opening ceremonies. Red Cloud, the Oglala Sioux chief, was to headline the Indian gathering.
In the end, none of them showed up.
But the organizers didn't yet know about that. They were preoccupied with a problem out on the West Coast, where the Filipino families hired for the fair's Philippine Village had been stopped by customs officials.
While the exposition's agent was trying to untangle the mess, he learned that a Navy ship in the harbor had Filipino cooks and stewards on board. He promptly hired some and sent them ahead to Omaha as stand-ins.
The Hawaiian exhibit also ran aground at customs, where most of the native plants were judged unfit and tossed overboard. The rest of the exhibit traveled to Omaha by train, although the railroad lost half of it along the way.
"Despite it all, the Greater America Exposition opened to big crowds – even bigger than the Trans-Mississippi had seen in its opening weeks, " Wells said.
Two weeks into the fair, organizers were hit by their worst luck yet. His name was Edward Rosewater.
The cantankerous civic leader and editor of the Omaha Bee newspaper felt slighted when his political allies ended up in a minority position on the governing board. So he and several major investors resigned, taking $30,000 with them. It drained the exposition's treasury of all its working capital.
Rosewater went back to his office and spent the next three months publishing complaints about the exposition, which never recovered from his assault. Before it ended, massive layoffs and occasional power outages had cast a pall over the Grand Court.
The Greater America Exposition of 1899 didn't compare to the Trans-Mississippi event the previous year. It wasn't a bad expo; it was just born under a bad sign. Most of the 800,000 visitors probably had a great time, but for the organizers, it was a real circus.
Want more of this? Check out Omaha.com/history for more stories from our city's fascinating past.